Christine Cook is a fifteen-year-old Irish Catholic girl who is bored with life in her small town of Oswego, New York. She yearns for adventure and wishes she was old enough to join the WACs or to simply travel the world learning about other cultures. Therefore, it isn't too surprising that Chris becomes instantly enthralled by the European war refugees who take up residence in the old abandoned military base at Fort Ontario in her hometown. On the day the refugees arrive, Chris is immediately smitten by a handsome, dark-haired young man, and loans her bicycle to his little sister. She sneaks into the camp almost every day, making new friends with the teens there and learning about their lives, and when she "officially" meets the boy she saw that first day, they become instant friends.
Adam Bornstein is a Yugoslavian Jew who has experienced more heartache in his seventeen years than many people have in a lifetime. He saw firsthand the horrors of war when the Nazis invaded his homeland, and his family had to run for their lives. Now he, his mother and sister have been given the opportunity to take refuge in America, and he is happy to be starting a new life. Adam couldn't help but be taken with the beautiful American girl who generously loaned his sister a bicycle and welcomed all the refugees with open arms. Never having had a girlfriend before, Adam isn't quite sure how one should behave around a girl he likes, but soon their easy friendship readily blossoms into sweet romance.
Unfortunately, Chris's father is adamantly against his Catholic daughter "going with" a Jewish boy, and orders her to stay away from the camp. Still, Chris can't seem to stop herself from going, not only to see Adam, but all of her other friends as well. Before long though, the harsh reality of life sets in. The emergency shelter was only meant to be a temporary home for the refugees, and what will happen to them after the camp closes is a daily uncertainty. They may be allowed to immigrate permanently or they may be sent back to their homeland, but either way, it seems inevitable that Chris and Adam will eventually be separated. Until the decision is made, they must struggle against the prejudiced attitude of Chris's father, love each other to the fullest, and hope against hope that they won't be torn apart in the end.
It is always such a joy to me when a random book buy turns out to be a fabulous read. I picked up Two Suns in the Sky at the library book sale for only fifty cents, but had I known how good it was going to be, I would have been happy to pay full-price. This young adult novel is a combination of historical fiction and historical romance. It is written in such a way that I believe teenagers could easily understand and relate to it, but it is full of the mysteries and complexities of life which I, as an adult, can appreciate as well. The narrative is written in first person point of view, alternating back and forth between the two protagonists, which I found to be very unique. I wasn't sure that I was going to like that at first, and it did take me a little while to get used to it. Ultimately though, I thought the author did a great job with not only the first person perspective itself, but also with differentiating between the two characters and giving them each their own distinctive voice. It took a little while for the character development to build. However, once I came into a full understanding of the two main characters, the story really hit its stride for me, and I had a hard time putting it down.
The historical aspect centers around the one and only refugee camp that operated on American soil during World War II. Located at Fort Ontario, Oswego, New York, it housed 1,000 European refugees, primarily Jews, for about 1½ years. I thought that the author really brought to life this overlooked snippet of American history by showing what it was like living on both sides of the fence. For those living inside the camp there were some, usually the older residents, who had difficulty adapting and felt like virtual prisoners, while the young people (children and teens) loved this new country and embraced the ability to attend school and just be normal kids without the worries of war hanging over their heads. There was a dichotomous state of mind for those living outside the camp as well, with many Oswego residents welcoming the new-comers with open arms, while others, of which Chris's father was one, exhibited a bigoted attitude of fear and suspicion. It was very difficult for me to read these parts of the story, as I don't think I will ever fully understand the mindset of a prejudiced person. Still I thought it rather ingenious the way the author rendered Chris's father as a rather conflicted man who was not an inherently bad person, just one who made bad choices but was still loved by his family in spite of his flaws. I also liked how the independent-minded Chris pointed out (though silently to herself) in one passage, just how ridiculous and un-Christian-like her father's views were. In addition to capturing the differing opinions of the characters, Miriam Bat-Ami also presented a historically accurate picture of these events. In her notes at the end of the book, she seems to indicate that information on the Emergency Refugee Shelter is not easy to come by, but through extensive research and interviews with actual residents of both the ERS and Oswego during that time period, she has been able to recreate this moment in history. In fact, the two main characters are based in part on real-life people that she met. Each chapter begins with a quote which in most cases came directly from one of the interviewees, making the story all the more authentic.
The romance aspect of the book is all about the forbidden love shared by two teens, Chris, an American Irish Catholic girl and Adam, a Yugoslavian Jewish boy. I related to both characters quite well. Chris is a girl with an adventurous spirit, dreaming of joining the WACs to help in the war effort. She also has an incredible curiosity about and compassion for other people. Chris seems to want nothing more than to travel the globe and learn about other cultures, so when the refugees arrive in her home-town, she, not surprisingly, is right there in thick of things, making new friends and fitting right in with these new kids. Adam is a boy who has experienced far more pain, hardship and horror than anyone his age should ever have to. Coming to America gives him a sense of freedom, and he wants nothing more than to start a new life in a country that he hopes will soon adopt him as a citizen. There is an instant attraction between Adam and Chris when Chris generously loans her bicycle to Adam's little sister on their first day in the refugee camp. Their relationship is slow building though, with them first becoming friends through school and the occasions that Chris sneaks into the camp to visit, not only Adam, but other friends she has made there. In spite of initially just being friends, they both often dream of kissing each other, and once they do become boyfriend and girlfriend, theirs is a romance filled with all the tenderness and sweet innocence of first love. As the relationship progresses though, it becomes rather bittersweet as Chris must constantly battle against her father's bigotry and the feeling that she is doing something wrong just by seeing Adam, and both must deal with the reality that at some point Adam is going to leave the camp, whether it be to become an American citizen living elsewhere or to go back to his home country. In the meantime they try to enjoy their stolen moments together to the fullest. At times they would make what in my opinion, was a very mature decision to stay away from each other, either in deference to Chris's father's edicts or to minimize the pain of the separation that seemed inevitable, but no matter how long they were apart, they never stopped loving one another. In some ways, I felt that it just made their feelings for one another grow stronger.
As a parent, I am always on the look-out for quality books that are not just entertaining, but also teach something while being age-appropriate, and I think that Two Suns in the Sky fits that bill nicely. If I, as an adult, learned something about history from this book, then teens most certainly will as well. I also thought that it had some good lessons in compassion for others and standing up for what you believe in. Content-wise, I thought the book is quite appropriate for the teens at which it is aimed. I only recall one or two mild profanities. Chris's dad and uncles drink beer on Thanksgiving, and Adam mentions being allowed to have a sip of brandy on the Sabbath. As I mentioned earlier, Chris and Adam's relationship is very innocent. Except for one scene they share nothing more than kisses, some sweet and others a bit more heated. On that one occasion, they engage in a small amount of moderate petting, but in my opinion, it is handled very well. At that point, both characters were feeling extremely vulnerable, which certainly could have led to things getting out of hand, but they both made a conscious and responsible decision to stop. Although the story contains some mature thematic elements such as body development and image, the death of loved ones, and the various horrors that are associated with war, I thought that everything was treated in a pretty matter-of-fact way and nothing was described in explicit details. Chris does disobey her father on several occasions by visiting the camp against his wishes, but I was not bothered by that because it is abundantly clear that her father is being unreasonable. If he had not been prejudiced and had invited Adam into their home, there would have been no need for Chris to sneak around. Chris's father does say some rather harsh things at times and meets out a very severe punishment to Chris on one occasion, all of which was difficult to read but can also teach lessons on the stark realities of life. Young or not, readers who are averse to overt depictions of religion may not care for this book, as both of the protagonist's religious backgrounds play a strong role, particularly Chris's Catholic faith. I personally was impressed with the care the Jewish author took in describing Catholicism, and anyone who is open-minded and interested in a love-overcomes-all, inter-ethnic romance which is blind to religion, should really enjoy it.
As a romance, Two Suns in the Sky has a rather ambiguous ending, not bad or sad, just no concrete answers about what the future holds for Chris and Adam. They were still young though, and their love for each other was so strong and passionate, it is easy for me to imagine them eventually riding off into the sunset of the fictional happily-ever-after. As a connoisseur of romances, I normally need a strong HEA to be fully satisfied when finishing a book with romance in it, but in this case, I was able to overlook it because of the strong historical element, which I believe was meant to be the main focus. The author makes a comment in her notes at the end about Two Suns in the Sky being her contribution to preserving the memory of the ERS camp, and in that capacity, I think she excelled beautifully. Not only did I learn things that I previously did not know, but I turned the final page only to discover a hunger to learn more. I was compelled to look up the works Ms. Bat-Ami cited in her notes, and have already put one of the books on my TBR list for just that purpose. In my opinion, one of the characteristics of a truly good author is the ability to both teach and stir up the innate desire for learning. I also had never read any books set in WWII before, but now I plan to look for more. I highly recommend this book for anyone who likes a good romantic story, both young and old alike. For me, discovering Two Suns in the Sky was like finding a bit of buried treasure that now forever has a home on my keeper shelf to hopefully be shared with my children and re-read many times over the years to come.
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