Be sure to read the author interview at the end. Rachel shares some of her memorable moments while researching for this book. You don’t want to miss that.
STRONGER THAN DEATH by Rachel Pieh Jones
STRONGER THAN DEATH tells the story of Annalena Tonelli, a woman from Italy, who was passionate about serving the poor, especially those affected by tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa. If you should Google Annalena’s name, you’ll find that she pushed the limits in most everything to accomplish all that she was involved in and honestly became well known in the world of humanitarian aid work. She has been described as a humanitarian aid worker, a missionary, a nun, and a social activist, though after reading this book I don’t believe she’d claim any of those descriptions. Through extensive research and countless interviews, Rachel shares a much broader picture of who Annalena was as a sister, a friend, a co-worker, a mother, and yes a Christian working with what many would label as “the least of these”. Annalena struggled, but as her story unfolds we see that her faith and love for the people she served came from God alone. Interwoven throughout this biography is historical and cultural facts about the people that call the Horn of Africa home, but it is also a memoir of sorts as Rachel shares how she and her family were affected by Annalena’s murder. On top of all this, there is some journalist reporting, as Rachel shares her own thoughts and questions regarding some of the decisions that Annalena made. I believe that if you are interested in the Horn of Africa, humanitarian aid work, female genital mutilation, or Muslim/Christian relationships than you should read this book.
I cannot lie – this is a must read for any adult. You will be challenged in the way you think and live your life. I highlighted many sections of this book because the quotes are THAT good. Rachel’s style of writing was so refreshing to me – the threads of Annalena’s life, the culture of the nomadic people, the hot topics that are still relevant today, and Rachel’s own life all woven together really create just a beautiful wall tapestry that can be read in a book. Because honestly, a beautiful life comes from what we learn and gain from the hard and challenging, and yes even suffering that we go through.
I can tell you’ve done extensive research for this book. It not only covers the life of Annalena, but some very hard topics and places in Africa. How long did it take from research to final draft?
I kind of started the research, without knowing it, when my family moved to and then fled from Somaliland in 2003! But that was just research by experience. The actual digging in and finding people and documents and dreaming of a book started around late 2013 with some conversations with my research partner, Matt Erickson. At first we talked about a film project, but it morphed into this book. I was finally able to gain access to her family members and other key people in 2016 and sold the book in 2017.
Were their times you just wanted to give up? If so, how did you stick with it and finish?
So many times! But two in particular. The first was when it became clear that her family in Italy weren’t initially excited about this project and wouldn’t answer any questions or engage with me. But after a full year of slowly massaging that relationship, of explaining that my goal wasn’t to sensationalize but to tell the real story (which had been sensationalized and manipulated in the past, and this hurt them, so they stopped talking with people), and through the quality documentary Matt Erickson produced for the UNHCR about her life (again demonstrating that I wanted to be respectful and accurate), they were willing to talk with me. And once they opened up, they really opened up! Other people were then willing to talk with me, they shared papers and photographs and it was absolutely incredible. The second time was when it took me so long and so many rejections to sell the book. I went through two agents and multiple conversations with editors but nothing worked out, nothing felt right, until I found Plough Publishing. I think I just felt compelled to press on, convinced there was an audience for this and even simply value in doing the work, because of how I was so personally impacted by what I found – which started to find its way into the manuscript as well.
Of all the people you interviewed, of the countless places you traveled, who or what stands out most in your mind?
Oh wow. So many. So many good, beautiful people. The exchange of some of her items – that really moved me. Maria Teresa, her best friend, gave me one of Annalena’s prayer books. And Antonio, who had been held hostage with her, gave me her red blanket. Both times, I cried. That people would trust me and share these treasures was powerful. In a way, it was like they were urging me to carry on her legacy – both through telling the story and in learning to live a little bit more like her – more love, more courage. Also, Elmi Mohamed, a nurse who worked with her in Wajir, to hear his stories about the Wagalla Massacre…and to see his continued service to his people in Kenya, it was powerful.
What genre would you label STRONGER THAN DEATH? I mean, it is a biography, but really it seems more than that.
Biography, but also history, science, maybe spiritual? Memoir a bit…the largest term I use is narrative nonfiction, but to non book nerds, that doesn’t communicate a whole lot. Well, to this book nerd, it makes sense. I think that is one of the reasons I liked it so much because it was such a mixture of different genres.
Is there a story or an inspiration for the title?
Titles are so hard for me. We probably spent hours, days even, with list and lists and white boards and spread sheets, tweaking every word. Ultimately, it was the title Plough picked.
Do you mind sharing your favorite quote from Annalena?
She once said, about people doing humanitarian aid, “our coming here only has meaning if we are joyfully willing to be manure.” When I read that, I thought, WHAT?! Manure? That wasn’t what I wanted to be, for sure, in doing humanitarian work. And yet…she was right. To be effective, to truly help, we need to be humble, low, learners, we need to help other people flourish. She wasn’t just saying be like a pile of crap! But manure, at least in composting, also helps people flourish. So be low yourself, so that others can rise up and be great.
So, as I was reading Annalena’s story a few other names came to my mind: Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward. I didn’t think of them as the “Mother Theresa” figure types, but more that these ladies all had high expectations for themselves in living and working, but also for those who wanted to “help” them in the work. I find in them what Angela Duckworth wrote about in her book, GRIT. I see it in them. Any thoughts on this idea?
You know, her family balked at the term Mother Teresa, and I did at first too. It almost can seem cliché. But it also captures a certain way of life and character of being with just two words. And that helps, when talking about a book! She certainly had grit, she could be stubborn and hardheaded, which I think is often what is necessary to also be productive.
Do you think that other women from our generation or younger that will pick up this baton that these women had and carry it out in other parts of the world?
I hope women will pick this up, I know some Somali women themselves who are serving in the Horn – Kali for example, one of the girls Annalena took in, is now the headmistress of a deaf school in rural Kenya. I think there is a kind of push-back about race and colonial attitudes and I agree that white people need, myself included, to be wise and sensitive and humble. We have made so many mistakes and need to do better. But I don’t believe that means we, or black and brown people, shouldn’t do service across race and cultural boundaries. I think that is what makes the world beautiful – that we aren’t confined to one culture or one location or one racial community, but that we can learn to love and support and be supported by people different from ourselves.
Okay lighter questions… Do you have another project started or thinking about a new one? Can you share or is it too early for sharing. =)
I do! I’m under contract for a second book with Plough, manuscript due in April. I can’t say a whole lot about it except that it explores similar themes but from a much more personal perspective. Ooh, can’t wait to hear more about this when you can share more.
Have you come to love the desert, yet?
Haha! Sometimes. Isn’t that a terrible answer? I do miss Minnesota lakes though.
Thank you so much, Rachel, for your time and answers.
If you would like to learn more about this book, check out this book trailer. You can pre-order (release date is 10/1/19) your copy of STRONGER THAN DEATH at these locations: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound
After the review be sure to read the author interview and find out how you could win a copy of this book.
Keep Calm and Carry On, Children by Sharon K. Mayhew
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fiction
I’ve added this book on WWII to my book list for a couple of reasons. First, it is about WWII and we should not forget. Second, the author is a TCK. She grew up in England and moved to the US when she was eight. Be sure to read my interview with Sharon at the end of the review.
Keep Calm and Carry On, Children is set in England during WWII. It follows the lives of Joyce and her sister who live in London during the time of air raids, bomb shelters, and death. Their parents make a hard decision to move their children to the far countryside away from danger. This move is what is known as Operation Pied Piper. WWII is taught in many schools around the world, but I believe that this part of history is not well known. As the story unfolds, Joyce and her sister make friends on the train and have quite an adventure of their own in the quiet village of Leek. It is here they learn that black and white is more of a grey when times are hard and the country is at war. War has changed the lives of all – no matter where you live or how old you are. Sharon creates adventure that any reader is bound to keep turning pages to see what becomes of Joyce and her friends.
My Take: War is hard and this time period is something we don’t want other generations to forget. Sharon has brought to life a hard to tell part of history. She created characters who struggle and endure making Keep Calm and Carry On, Children a memorable story that will cause you to want to research more about Operation Pied Piper.
Insights from the author…
Where did the idea for this book come from?
That’s a great question! It all started with the seed. I go to England once a year, or twice if I’m lucky, to visit family. I’ve taken my daughter on several of these trips, so she could connect with her English roots. My grandparents, one of which passed away six years ago, have played a huge role in my life. That kind of sounds funny as I only saw them a couple times a year until about 2008 when they stopped traveling to America. But Grandad (yes, I spell it that way) is now 98 and still has a wealth of wisdom and stories to tell. And I’ve been listening…
So, the initial seed came from them tell stories about days gone by. His family, like so many patriotic families joined the war effort in any way they could. One thing his mum did was take in two evacuees for the entirety of World War II. They didn’t really talk about war time until about 2010, at that point I would sneak back up to my bedroom and write down notes of his and Nanny’s stories. As the years went on, I started taking notes on my Iphone while they were telling me about their youth’s. When they saw how interested I was in the history of the British people during that time period they started taking me to historic places related to the war and I started buying books, fiction and non-fiction, purchasing reprints of wartime documents, and doing independent research on Operation Pied Piper. As a former elementary school teacher, I read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE every year, but just considered it fiction until the conversations began with my grandparents. I was shocked, amazed and a bit horrified that people sent their children to live with complete strangers in the countryside in the north of England. Those children had to be incredibly brave to persevere through the Blitz, through the uncertainty of their future with strangers and if or when they would reunite with their parents.
The title of your book is somewhat different, isn’t it? I did some research and found that it is from a British WWII poster. Can you elaborate on that some?
LOL! It is! KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON is iconic! But it was true to the British spirit…You’ve heard of having a stiff upper lip, right? I wanted to show that attitude in my title. Thankfully, KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON was never copywrited, so I was able to use it in the title. I think Black Rose Writing did an excellent job with the cover! They even let me have some input on it. My main requests were to use the KEEP CALM font and to have an English flag in the background.
You were born in England and moved to the US at the age of 8. You were not much younger than your main character, Joyce. You both moved to different cultures and had to adapt. How did this experience help you understand Joyce better?
This is a really interesting question…I hadn’t thought about how my immigration affected my writing in this book. Some of Joyce’s story is my story. I lived in a rural village in England before I moved to the States. We didn’t have an indoor toilet and we bathed in a big tin tub with water heated from a coal heated stove. I think I must have compared that to what a change it was in America for me. I tried to put myself in Joyce’s shoes for each scene/chapter. I think you are right. I used my emotions for the unknown and uncertainty in my childhood to help create Joyce and move her forward in her journey. Wow! Lightbulb moment!
How else did being a TCK influence you as your wrote this story?
I really wanted to write a book that showed children (or adults) that they could overcome anything, if they just pushed forward…persevered. Facing the unknown is hard. Knowing that others have done it, hopefully, is helpful to readers of any age.
Where is “home” to you?
That’s a really hard question! When I get to England I am home, because of my grandad, but when I get back to the States I am home because of my husband and daughter. I’m still holding a British passport. That will change when my grandad passes, so looking deeper…I’m at home in America. I love going to England but there are so many people in such a small land area…and the roads! OMGoodness the roads! They are so narrow!!!
What is your favorite British dish that you had to learn to make as you live in the US? Or what is the first thing you want to eat when you go back to England?
So I’m definitely not a chef, but there are two things I must have when I’m in England: fish and chips and a scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam and of course a cup of tea.
Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I’m humbled by every person that reads my book and reviews it or reaches out to me. I’m so blessed in so many ways.
And thank you, Sharon, for such a delightful interview. I love hearing from authors about how they created their characters and the background information. I’m so glad that your grandad got to read it.
And thanks to Sharon, you all have an opportunity to win a copy of her debut middle grade novel KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, CHILDREN. For those of you living out of the United States, you will have a chance to win an e-book and a signed bookmark. For those within the 50 states, you have the chance to win a signed copy of the physical book.
I’m keeping it simple…simply comment about why you would like to have this book or a question you have for Sharon. I’ll enter all the names into an online random name picker to choose who wins. The name will be drawn on September 26th at 9pm Eastern Time Zone.
GETTING STARTED helps cross-cultural workers manage their first year better. It is written with missionaries in mind, but I believe that anyone that is moving abroad would benefit. Amy doesn’t just use her experience from living in China, but the experiences of countless others from around the world. GETTING STARTED touches on so many preconceived ideas a person can have about culture or language, to even daily living and working with teammates. Amy doesn’t gloss over the difficult, nor does she spotlight the magnificent. She keeps it real. GETTING STARTED isn’t a self-help book in that if you follow each step perfectly your first year will be a breeze. Amy is passionate about helping people be successful their first year – but from reading this book you will realize that her idea of success is not a year where everything is smooth, easy, and problem free. That’s just not how life works. I think Amy summarizes the idea of this book best in her introduction, “This book is designed to help you begin to release the ‘shoulds’ and allow yourself to be wherever you are in the process of adjusting to the field.”
My Take: I believe that this is an important topic for missionaries or Christian workers going on the field – or even those who have been on the field for that matter. It would be a great resource for sending organizations to have as they prepare their people to go out.
The time of year has come for the expat communities of the world – that time of ebb and flow of suitcases, boxes and RAFT building. At times it may feel more like emotional waves crashing, letting go of a child who graduates can be specially daunting.
As a mom of a son who will soon begin his year of “lasts”, this has been on my heart: how will I let him go with grace and peace?
This week I am guest writing for Multicultural Kid Blogs about how to let our kids go as they prepare to leave “home”. Click here to read more.
Life can be like a journey down a winding river. Rivers can be calm and smooth, but usually along the way rapids appear. Life is like that. Sometimes the rapids are exciting and fun, like moving overseas. Other times they are downright frightening, like an unwanted diagnosis.
During those rapids I find myself wanting and sometimes even desperately trying to paddle back upstream away from it all. I long for an easier way, but usually there is no other way. And in the end, I find that God uses those hard situations in my life to transform me.
Fifteen years ago I found myself at one of those bends.
*PC Credit: Free-photos via pixaby
I grew up with my extended family. Every Sunday after church all my aunts, uncles, and cousins would meet at my grandparent’s farm. My grandmother prepared what most people would consider a Thanksgiving dinner every week – mashed potatoes, homemade noodles, roast or turkey… My mom has continued this tradition with my siblings and their growing families. It is amazing to go back to. After my sisters and I clean up the table we sit with our steaming hot coffee and catch up. I love those moments.
I live too far to do that every week. In fact, it sometimes doesn’t happen in a calendar year. That’s just how home assignments go.
But, God has been good to me. He has provided “family” in every location we’ve moved. He has provided “sister’s in Christ”. I just returned from a ladies retreat where I got to see some of those sisters and to be honest I adopted a few more. It was a retreat for English speaking Christians here on the island. It wasn’t affiliated with a specific sending organization, nor was it focused on a specific nationality. It was beautiful.
- God’s girls hiking in the mountains together.
- God’s girls playing “Catch Phrase” together.
- God’s girls singing His praises together.
- God’s girls crying together over some tough circumstances.
- God’s girls giggling in bed like two schoolgirls trying to be quiet so they don’t get in trouble from their mother.
God’s girls are sisters. He has no boundaries in his family. There is no nationality boundary. No racial boundary. No age boundary. No ability/disability boundary. My sisters in Christ are a beautiful bunch of gals.
How about you? Have you been able to find “sisters” among the women you meet where you are located?
BLACK DOVE WHITE RAVEN by Elizabeth Wein
Audience/Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Summary: Teo and Emilia are friends from birth. After a bird strike during a flying stunt performance by their mothers they become siblings. Em’s mother wants to follow her late best friend’s wishes: to raise Teo in a place where he won’t be judged by the color of his skin, the country where his father was from. Set in the 1930’s Em’s mother makes the decision to move to Ethiopia where she can raise her white daughter alongside her now black son in the peaceful countryside. But, as Italy moves to invade and war brews, both children, now in their teens, have to make a decisions about home and loyalty.
My Take: This book has so many layers to it. It is definitely a TCK/CCK book. Teo is half Ethopian and Emilia is half Italian. There are inner struggles of “home”, which is something most TCK/CCKs understand. Ms. Wein weaves prejudice into the lives of the children, but also into the lives of their mothers. It is just a good book that will make you think deeper about issues that are relevant today. As I read the bio of Elizabeth Wein, I came to realize that she understands the issues of TCKs because she was raised abroad and is now living abroad as well. I highly recommend this book not just because of the TCK/CCK issues that Ms. Wein attempts to tackle, but because it really deals with issues that are relevant today.
Your Turn: What have you been reading? Share in the comments below. I’m always looking for new titles to read.
It is the night before St. Nikolaus Tag, which my husband celebrated as a young German boy growing up in Taiwan. Even though I didn’t grow up celebrating like this we have made this part of our Christmas tradition with our own kids. Tonight the girls cleaned their shoes and in the morning they will find some chocolate and treats inside.
Celebrating the holidays with family from different cultures is interesting. I was allowed to write “Holidays for Cross-Cultural Kids” for Multicultural Kid Blogs. If you’d like to read more about what a CCK is or other ideas on this topic please read more here.
I have struggled on and off with being content. I don’t mean where I am in life, or how my life is going (though, there are days), but the struggle of “Where is home?”. I’m not really talking about the same struggle that Third Culture Kids talk about. My struggle is not owning a home. Maybe this comes from all the painting I’ve been doing in home #….. too many to count or remember. After a year here, I think I might actually be seeing the bottom of the paint can for now. With every stroke of the brush I wonder how long I will actually get to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Will we just have one more year before forced to pack again? That is the struggle of many who live overseas. No home to call our own.
It doesn’t help when I see photos or hear about friends buying a home.
It doesn’t help that my kids are getting older and I’m not sure where they will “come back home” to (though that is their TCK issues they will have to work out).
It doesn’t help that if we could buy a home, I have NO idea where it would even be or should be? Taiwan? Germany? US? The options are endless and overwhelming.
Sometimes these pesky questions makes me feel homeless. Not in the sense that I don’t have a place to live, because I do. We’ve been able to rent places for the past 20 years. And while I’m thankful for that, we have nothing to call our own. I know I’ve talked to other luggage carrying expats toting kids around the globe who have had this same feeling. Then I’ve talked with other expat friends who have bought a house, but don’t live in it. They have the stress of keeping it up while away. They are also feeling discontent.
Which make me wonder if my real problem is just being content. Period.
Why do we feel discontent? I won’t go in to great depths here, because the answers vary from person to person – but I think it all boils down to what we think about and focus our thoughts on.
I will never be content with myself or where I am IF my focus, my outlook on life is on myself.
When I look at who God is and marvel at all He has done – I am content. Content with life. Content with the home I’m allowed to live in. Rejoice with my friends. Excited to live in a new place. Joyful.
When I’m content with God, then my whining self turns into gratitude and joy. And folks, that is who I want to be no matter where I live.
Today’s post is linked up with Velvet Ashes: Content.
- PC: nikosapelaths via pixabay.com