The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle, published in 2000
Fear permeates the Rhode Island coastal town where Robert, his mother, and sister are living out the war with his paternal grandparents: Fear of Nazi submarines offshore. Fear of Abel Hoffman, a German artist living reclusively outside of town. And for Robert, a more personal fear, of his hot-tempered, controlling grandfather.
As Robert watches the townspeople’s hostility toward Hoffman build, he worries about his sensitive cousin Elliot’s friendship with the artist. And he wonders more and more about the family secret everyone seems to be keeping from him—a secret involving Robert’s father, a bomber pilot in Europe.
This book uses an interesting technique, where the main character (Robert) is not exactly the focus of the story. Robert narrates The Art of Keeping Cool in first person, but focuses a lot of the story on his cousin, Elliot, and Elliot’s growing relationship with German artist Abel Hoffman. At the same time, Robert tries to uncover the reason why his family never mentions his father’s name — though this plotline only really speeds up in the last third of the book.
One thing caught me eye before I even started reading Janet Taylor Lisle’s book, and I’m surprised I spotted it in the first place. A disclaimer on the copyrights page, in fact. Usually, I’m so excited to get into a book I barely even glance at the summary on the back. The disclaimer states that the town of Sachem’s Head, Rhode Island, is fictitious; all its inhabitants and their situations are products of the author’s imagination and not intended to portray real people or real situations.
Many books include similar statements, the old “resemblances to persons living or dead are purely coincidental.” But I paused on this because The Art of Keeping Cool is a work of historical fiction. Historical fiction doesn’t need to include real people, but you know, you tend to assume there are some real events in there. So what exactly in this book was real, and what was fake? This could be just my opinion, but I was a little upset that this book leaned more towards fiction than historical. Nope, I don’t like to feel like I’m reading a history book when I pick up something labelled “historical fiction,” but I also don’t like the feeling that an author spun off a whole new world, just in another time zone (unless I’m told from the get go it’s magical realism). So for me, a bit of sadness on this part.
Let me be clear though, the departures weren’t too huge? The book is set in 1942, very soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. (Real event.) Robert informs readers that this led to the Americans entering WWII (true) and his father heading off to help pretty much immediately. His father was able to go so quickly because he used to fly with the postal service (true, not true? I don’t know). The story takes place in Sachem’s Head (not real) Rhode Island, right near Fort Brooks, a naval base (can’t find mention of it online, but there were naval bases in Rhode Island). German submarines are spotted off the coast (the only documented cases of U-boats, aka subs, I could find were after 1942, but it’s plausible). A passenger ship, the S. S. Cherokee, is sunk by a U-boat in the book and, in real life, a boat of the same name suffered the same fate in 1942. My suggestion, after all my personal internet browsing? A page of facts, where the author provides a list separating the truths from her fictions.
Despite this, I really enjoyed the book. Robert and Elliot are an interesting duo. From the beginning, Robert explains that Elliot is a bit of an odd one: withdrawn, prone to silent moments, very introspective. Elliot shares his passion of drawing with Robert, a secret he keeps from the rest of the family for fear of being mocked. It’s not a random fear, either. The family is pretty much led by the grandfather, a strict, traditional man who believes men should work hard and earn good money and women should cook and clean. Robert isn’t impressed. Elliot stays quiet, because he knows it’s the way to survive.
Elliot forms a close attachment with Abel, because the pair both see the world in the same way. To Elliot, Abel is not “the German,” but an artist who can guide his talent. Robert is far more hesitant. Why, Robert wonders, would a German be in a small town with a navel base nearby? Why would a German care about art and Elliot?
Robert does not dislike Abel, but he does not trust him. At the same time, he does not trust his grandfather. This book allows readers to examine the way we interpret the people around us based on the knowledge we’re given. Abel is a reserved man and the only label people have for him is “German”: the nation that they are fighting. Thus they despise him. Robert’s grandfather is a harsh man who accepts no judgement but his own, and yet no one will speak a bad word about him. But he’s a family member, so his actions are accepted. (To drop my own opinion, Abel wasn’t the best guy in the world because he certainly had drunk temper moments, but he had reasons explained later in the book and these rages were not directed at people, he just withdrew. As for the grandfather, I did not like him at all.)
According to the UN Declaration of Human rights, Article #28, everyone is entitled to live in a fair and free world where their rights can be realized. This means that Abel shouldn’t be attacked for his nationality (which the book explores in detail, and the ending to this plot is quite sad) and the grandfather shouldn’t oppress family members into hiding their beliefs/abuse them physically and verbally. But as is the case with many of the human rights, they exist but are not always applied. The law could not adequately protect everyone in this story because so many different rights were squished up against each other. The grandfather has the right to his beliefs, Abel has the right to be treated innocent until proven guilty, Elliot has the right to a life that suits his personal needs. No, the book was not obsessed with labelling human rights like I’m doing right now, haha. But these were certainly issues that cropped up throughout the novel.
I’ll flip back to the ending of the book, which I mentioned in passing as being a sad one. Not the ending exact, since Robert provides a form of epilogue for the reader to say who is doing what a few years later. But how the story ends in Sachem’s Head. Abel’s conclusion is a tragic one (I won’t spoil) that reflects how persecution exists not only in far away countries. Robert finds out the final pages what happened that severed the ties between his father and his grandfather (it’s not pretty). Then the book kind of wraps up and leads into the “epilogue.”
I’m hovering between three and half or four stars for this book. Like I said at the beginning, I was a little frustrated that the lines of reality and fiction were so blurred in this book. I like it when authors make clear what is true and what is false when something is historical fiction. Also, I really wanted something to happen to the grandfather (change his ways, get yelled at, idk). He was abusive, both verbally and physically. But I think it also shows the way men like him were sort of “accepted” in the 1940s (and even to this day, though to a lesser extent). It was explained away as “he’s the man of the house, he needs to lay down the law” and also “what happens in so-and-so’s home stays in so-and-so’s home.” It was more acceptable to hit a child for misbehaviour or force them into things they didn’t want. And … sometimes the bad guy gets away with it? I don’t know.
But I did like this book, so don’t get me wrong! The fact that the grandfather frustrated me so much is a good thing. Makes me want to do something. I didn’t plan on making this review so long so… that’s it for this one! I’ll leave four crowns down there and you decide if you agree or not.
Here are the Chooseday options for next week! Leave your vote in the comments below. As you know, only two options left because these are special picks for the BPR Human Rights Book Challenge. Thanks for taking the time to vote, I always appreciate it.
(1) Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
It’s Spring Break of senior year. Anna, her boyfriend Tate, her best friend Elise, and a few other close friends are off on a debaucherous trip to Aruba that promises to be the time of their lives. But when Elise is found brutally murdered, Anna finds herself trapped in a country not her own, fighting against vile and contemptuous accusations.
As Anna sets out to find her friend’s killer, she discovers hard truths about her friendships, the slippery nature of truth, and the ache of young love.
As she awaits the judge’s decree, it becomes clear that everyone around her thinks she is not just guilty, but dangerous. When the truth comes out, it is more shocking than one could ever imagine…
(2) Feed by M.T. Anderson
For Titus and his friends, it started out like any ordinary trip to the moon – a chance to party during spring break and play with some stupid low-grav at the Ricochet Lounge. But that was before the crazy hacker caused all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. And it was before Titus met Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who has decided to fight the feed and its omnipresent ability to categorize human thoughts and desires.
Comment below what book I should read and review for next week!
📷 = @shaniasquires