Jackaroo, by Cynthia Voigt

This month’s article on fiction is about a short excerpt from Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt. Jackaroo, set in a medieval-Europe-like Kingdom (known as “the Kingdom”), is aimed at young adults. It follows teenaged Gwyn who tries to make a difference to how the people in her area live when she finds the costume of a mysterious outlaw known as Jackaroo, and decides to use the costume herself to take on the guise of Jackaroo. This is the first in a series of four novels set in the Kingdom.

The following excerpt is from a section of the story in which Gwyn and the son of a Lord are sheltering in a cabin following a blizzard, having been separated from the adults they were travelling with. This is before Gwyn’s discovery of the Jackaroo costume.

The Lordling sat at the table, turning the pages of the long book. Gwyn took up an armload of folded clothes to lay them out on the bed while she wiped down the inside of the first cupboard. Each cupboard had one shelf in it, so there was not much to carry. Moving behind the Lordling, she glanced over her shoulder. On the top of the page was a picture of three faces. Before she thought to stop herself, she spoke: “Those are the three men. From the hut.”
“Had they murdered us, this might have identified them, when they went to sell the book. My father wrote it down underneath their pictures.” His fingers pointed to a line of shapes. Underneath the faces and the shapes, other lines and waves curved. Gwyn stared at them until suddenly she saw what they were. She did this by a trick of mind, as if she were a bird seeing a flat landscape from above.
“It really is a map,” she said. She could identify the hills now, and a pathway among them; when she looked down on it as if from the sky she could see what it pictured. There was the dot where the men’s hut was, and forests spreading back over the hills.

What I’d like to highlight from the excerpt above is how the characters think about drawing and writing. The Lordling has learned how to read and write, and assists his father in mapping the land of the Kingdom but Gwyn has not learned to read and write or use maps. She realises how to use the map by comparing the map to what the land would look from above as a bird might see it. She thinks about the writing, on the other hand, as a line of symbols but does not know what they relate to or how they are used. They had sheltered in the hut of three men the previous night in the course of their travels carrying out a land survey. They had been suspicious of the men but had nowhere else to shelter. The Lordling’s father drew the men and made a note beneath it, knowing that the three men could not read, so that if the men killed and/or robbed them they would be caught when they tried to sell the book to someone who could read.

Then she realized that she shouldn’t be standing so close, gawking. She moved quickly away.
“I don’t mind, Innkeeper’s daughter.”
Curiosity brought Gwyn back to stand behind him. On the top of the map a cross was drawn, with shapes at each end. It wasn’t part of the map, at least not that Gwyn could remember. “What is that?” She pointed.
“The directions of the compass. N means north, S south, E east, and W west.
Gwyn stared at the signs. The river runs to the south of us, so I can see why it’s the curved shape, but that one for the west should be the north, because even if it’s upside down it looks more like the mountains.
It took him a minute to understand her. “No. They’re letters. They’re initials. I just named the letters. Listen: the letter N comes first in the word north, and E in east. Hear it? That’s S for south, and W for west. They’re just the initial letters.
“W doesn’t sound like west,” Gwyn pointed out. It didn’t look like west either, where the sun went down. It looked like upside down mountains. She wondered if he were mocking her. Sometimes the names of the letters don’t match their sounds but mostly they do,” he told her. “I have to go outside.”

Gwyn is familiar with the concepts of north, east, south and west but not with how they are written. She tries to match letters as symbols which share a similar appearance to what they stand for, causing her to suggest that W would be a more appropriate symbol for the north because it looks like upside down mountains and the north is mountainous. The Lordling tells her that letters don’t work like that and demonstrates that they provide sounds to words. However Gwyn points out that this is not the case for W and west. The Lordling concedes that they mostly provide sounds for words but sometimes they don’t.

This is an example of how fiction can be used to explore ideas. A writer does not have to argue for any particular conclusions. The excerpt above does not argue for any conclusion but can, for example, raise questions for people who thought they had been using a rule-based language system to derive meanings from experience and/or from symbols (aka abstract structure-based semiotics, or computational representation).

In my judgment Jackaroo is also a solid adventure story and, like other Cynthia Voigt novels, features interesting in-depth characters.

The Traveler, by John Katzenbach

The Traveler is a novel that I first read when I was in the 6th grade. While it is not recommended for 12 year olds, I appreciated the psychological depth of the characters, how Katzenbach handled the relationships between characters, and the ramifications of murderer-and-kidnapper Douglas Jeffers’ actions on his victims, his victims’ family and his own family. Doug himself is not a formulaic villain but a fully fleshed out character and, while you don’t have to agree with his choices, the details are there to understand how he could justify such choices.

There are a lot of serial killer novels and films out there; some good and some bad. A major plus for The Traveler is that it is not another one based on high profile real life cases. Some of those based on these cases are, in my judgment, really good but there is only so many times it is enjoyable to read or watch stories loosely based on these specific cases. Having been a criminal court reporter, Katzenbach would have had a lot of material to draw from in coming up with original ideas for The Traveler.

Doug is an intelligent and professionally accomplished serial killer without being a Hannibal Lecter or Ted Bundy clone (although some broad similarities could be drawn in relation to some aspects of Ted Bundy if you were looking to do it), and Merce is a determined cop acting on her own and seeking vengeance without being a stereotypical rogue cop character.

Independently of anything else, I also think The Traveler is an interesting exploration of the nature of literature, biography and photography.

I have provided a chapter-by-chapter outline below, but I recommend reading the novel itself for all the smaller details that can’t be included in such a condensed summary.

I. The Reasons Behind Detective Barren’s Obsession
1. Detective Mercedes (Merce) Barren is notified of her niece Susan’s murder and breaks the news to Susan’s parents.
2. Merce investigates the crime scene and the autopsy.
3. Merce attends the trial of captured serial killer Sadegh Rhotzbadegh for the murder of Susan, then realises it may not have been him.
II. An English Lit Major
4. Doug locates Anne Hampton, an English lit major who “has potential.”
III. Boswell
5. Doug Kidnaps Anne.
6. Anne is trained by Doug to obey him.
IV. A Regular Session of the Lost Boys
7. Martin (Marty) Jeffers takes a session of his sex-offender psychiatry group, then finds out a detective from Miami has called and wants to speak to him.
V. A Singular Pursuit
8. Merce tries to convince Lieutenant Burns from Homicide that Rhotzbadegh may not have murdered Susan.
9. Merce gets to work herself on going over the evidence again; visiting the crime scene, questioning the medical examiner at the morgue, and drinking alone in her apartment.
10. Merce questions Rhotzbadegh in prison, then investigates a press pass found at the crime scene by questioning staff at the Miami Dolphins and at the print company that provides the passes. She gets Doug’s name.
VI. An Easy Person to Kill
11. Anne is taught by Doug about being ‘his Boswell’ (an allusion to James Boswell, famous for his biography of Samuel Johnson), documenting Doug’s journey and his thoughts. Then he shows what he’s capable of by killing a homeless guy on the side of a road.
VII. Disbelief
12. Merce talks to Marty about Doug, and Marty is ambivalent about co-operating.
VIII. Other Dark Places
13. Doug tells Anne about his life.
IX. Another Regular Session of the Lost Boys
14. Marty runs another therapy session while Merce stalks him, finds a key to Doug’s apartment in his desk, goes to Dougs apartment and finds photos of his victims.
X. Many Roadside Attractions
15. Anne acts as Doug’s Boswell as he talks about his life. Doug poses as a magazine photographer and gets two women to take their clothes off in a secluded forest reserve intending to kill them but aborts when a forest ranger comes by.
XI. One Trip to New Hampshire
16. Merce ambushes Marty outside his apartment, confronting him at gunpoint with the photos from Doug’s apartment of his victims. Merce wants Marty’s help, but doesn’t want to go to the police. Marty fears she wants to kill Doug.
XII. Another Trip to New Hampshire
17. Doug gets $120,000 of emergency money out of his fraudulent bank account and they head toward Cape Cod. By now, Anne is so trained to go along with Doug’s orders that she has a chance to escape and it doesn’t occur to her to take it.
XIII. An Irregular Session of the Lost Boys
18. Marty leads a therapy session and figures out where he thinks Doug may have gone. When Marty fails to meet Merce, she questions his therapy group and finds out where he’s probably going.
XIV. No Man’s Land
19. Marty arrives at the Jeffers family’s old home, finding Doug and Anne there with the current owners held captive, and talks to his brother. Merce arrives later and attempts to shoot Doug and, while Anne manages to get hold of Doug’s gun and wound him, Doug gets the upper hand and shoots Merce. The shot is a cold-blooded action but non-fatal for Merce. Doug takes a dingy out on the water and shoots the bottom out of it, consoled by the thought that he was never caught.

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My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

I will discuss the central ethical dilemma of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, the way the story has been told using multiple character perspectives, the issue of medical ethics, and the ending of the novel.

Many readers have had a strong response to the ending and a lot of fans of the novel have expressed their concern that the film had a different ending. Jodi Picoult even put a message on her website expressing her own concerns and explaining the situation surrounding the change (that is, that she [or possibly her publisher] had sold the film rights and, although she was disappointed, the decision to change the ending was not hers – but that there are still a lot of good points to the film).

I, personally, listened to the audio-book of the novel then watched the film (then got the novel to see it on the page). However, some may prefer to watch the film then read or listen to the novel so you don’t focus on what is missing from the film instead of what is included. If you intend to read or listen to the novel at some stage, I recommend doing it before you read on – or at least before you read past the spoiler alert further down. The audio-book has the added bonus of being read by Jodi Picoult herself. I think it is very beneficial to hear writing read by the author because I can listen to the way they deliver the words and the emphases they place on different aspects of the writing in the way they read it.

You can purchase the audio-book and be listening to it within minutes (when you choose the download option) via the following link:

My Sister's Keeper
Picoult also has a range of free audio interviews, podcasts, and extra material about the novels on her website http://www.jodipicoult.com/.
The Amazon page for Jodi Picoultalso has U.S. book tour dates and a movie trailer for My Sister’s Keeper.

The major ethical dilemma: is it right to sacrifice one child for another?

The major ethical dilemma and source of conflict for the plot is as follows: Kate needs a kidney or she will die. Her sister Anna is the only compatible donor available. Anna gets a lawyer and seeks medical emancipation from her parents so she won’t have to donate her kidney. Their mother, a lawyer, commits to fighting Anna’s efforts at medical emancipation so Kate can get Anna’s kidney.

Early in the novel, the reader is faced with the issue of how much it is reasonable to expect Anna to sacrifice for Kate. Should she give up her kidney, or should she be able to choose not to donate it – even if that means Kate will die?

Picoult has described My Sister’s Keeper as “Sophie’s Choice for the twenty-first century.” I will discuss the aspect of a choice to sacrifice one child for another in My Sister’s Keeper, and the overt as well as implicit ways this is conveyed, in more detail further on.
One of the things that I think Picoult does well as a writer is to develop stories based on a strong ethical dilemma and facilitating an understanding of multiple sides to the dilemma. While doing this, she also keeps the plot and the nature of the main conflicts between the characters clear throughout each novel. In her novels, Picoult has consistently created fictional situations in which she focuses on multiple characters, each holding a key opinion about the situation which conflicts with that of another character. Rather than attempt to convey a message with each novel, Picoult raises a question that can be transferred to life beyond the novel and encourages each reader to understand several opinions on how to approach the question.

(Comparison: Paul Haggis has used a similar approach with his films, raising questions such as ‘Would you ever cheat on your partner?’ and ‘How would you respond to being cheated on by your partner?’ in The Last Kiss; and ‘What lengths would you go to to achieve your goals in life?’ and ‘Is a short life lived genuinely according to your convictions more valuable than a long life of just getting by and deferring or giving up on your goals?’ in Million Dollar Baby.)

Networked multi-perspective narrative

Picoult has said, in an interview with Bill Thompson, that “I couldn’t let one of them tell you the story because they all had a right to explain to you why they had made the choices they’d made, and that why I wound up with this particular set of multiple narratives."

In a podcast on her website, Picoult has said “I thought I was writing a story about a family stricken by one daughter’s terminal illness and that Anna was gonna tell you that story, but I began considering the point of view of everyone else in the family too.” She has told of the inspiration she drew from her own experience of having a child with an illness [an ear condition requiring a number of operations] and how this gave her an insight into how such an illness could impact on members of a family. She continued “I thought of all the sacrifices my other children had made when Jake [her son] was sick; birthday parties they’d missed and Open School Night presentations we didn’t attend. I thought of the fight I once had with my son Kyle, who wanted to know why getting strep throat didn’t rate as high as Jake’s condition. […] When one child gets sick, the whole family does. A family unit is a finite shape and pulling hard on one part of it means that another part has to give a little.”

In the novel, Picoult has used six distinct character perspectives to tell the story. This contributes to the understanding of multiple opinions on how to approach the major question of the novel rather than conveying a single message. Readers are encouraged to consider various ethical dilemmas surrounding the issue of sacrificing one child for another via the characters of Anna Fitzgerald, her mother Sara, her father Brian, her brother Jesse, her lawyer Campbell Alexander, and a court-appointed counselor Julia Romano who spends some time with Anna to find out what her wishes are and form an opinion on whether it is appropriate for Anna to remain in her parent’s home in the lead up to the trial.

Medical Ethics at the Trial

At the trial, a member of the Ethics Board from the hospital Kate and Anna have frequented throughout their lives was questioned about the ethics of the hospital and he gave the following account, which came under six principles:
Autonomy; or the idea that any patient over age 18 has the right to refuse treatment
Veracity; which is basically informed consent
Fidelity; that is a healthcare provider fulfilling his duties
Beneficence; or doing what’s best in the interests of the patient
Non-maleficence; when you can no longer do good, you shouldn’t do harm like performing major surgery on a terminally ill patient who is 102 years old; and finally
Justice; that no patient should be discriminated against in receiving treatment.

This account of medical ethics both provides some guidance for judging ethical decisions and hints at a range of areas in which differences of opinion may occur. Anna’s case highlights how ethical guidelines such as those above can be considered in various ways and their application is not always black and white, but can contain many shades of grey. What Picoult does is place such ethical concerns into a ‘novel about family, relationships, and love’; a phrase she associates with all her novels.



This is your last chance to read or listen to the novel before reading on.


Losing Anna

Near the end, having won medical emancipation, Anna is in a car crash, attended by her father in his capacity as a firefighter. In an emotional scene, he pulls her out of the wreckage. She dies, and Kate gets her kidney.

One daughter has been inadvertently sacrificed for another; not by a deliberate choice but by an accident that arose indirectly from the circumstances initiated by wanting Anna to donate her kidney. Anna was bred to give from her body to sustain the life of her sister, but her parents had not intended on sacrificing Anna’s life for Kate’s; they just wanted to use her as a compatible biological donor of blood… then other things like bone marrow… then a kidney. The theme of sacrificing one life to sustain another is made very concrete with the death of Anna and the donation of her kidney. However, throughout the whole story, there is a range of more subtle ways in which Anna and other members of the family are sacrificed for Kate:

Anna has been subjected to many medical procedures throughout her childhood.

Sara has given up her job as a lawyer.

Little attention has been paid to Jesse and he has been getting into trouble.

Brian has become the sole provider for a family, with three children and probably very expensive medical costs, that has gone from two incomes to one.

In a way, the whole family have sacrificed their own enjoyment and meaningful engagement in their own lives to focus their combined efforts on a losing battle to save Kate.

In the end, Anna’s kidney saves Kate… barely.

The whole ending with Anna’d death and Kate’s recovery is different in the film version, in which it turns out Kate had asked Anna to refuse to donate her kidney because the kidney would only prolong her life of sickness, not cure her, and she was ready to die. In the film, Kate dies and Anna is granted medical emancipation, putting the focus of the story more on their mother’s journey to accept the inevitable death of Kate.

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The Silver Sword (aka Escape From Warsaw), by Ian Serraillier

I will outline features of The Silver Sword sufficient for an appreciation of the main character’s journey to bring her family, separated in WW2, back together.

A straightforward plot summary, is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silver_Sword and a review treating The Silver Sword as a novel about the “the difficulties of surviving in a world that has been destroyed by war” is available at www.readingmatters.co.uk/book.php?id=81.

The opening paragraphs of the novel set up the main story as well as the general plot structure. The first 5 of 29 chapters follow Joseph Balicki, and the following 24 follow the Balicki children with Ruth as the focal point that holds the story together.

This is the story of a Polish family, and of what happened to them during the Second World War and immediately afterward. Their home was in a suburb of Warsaw, where the father, Joseph Balicki, was headmaster of a primary school. He and his Swiss wife, Margrit, had three children. In early 1940, the year when the Nazi’s took Joseph away to prison, Ruth, the eldest, was nearly thirteen, Edek was eleven, and the fair-haired Bronia three.

Warsaw under the Nazis was a place of terror, and without their father to protect them the Balickis had a grim time of it. But worse was in store for them. They were to endure hardships and conditions which made them think and plan and act more like adults than children. Great responsibilities were to fall upon Ruth. Many other girls had to face difficulties as great as hers. But if there were any who faced them with as much courage, unselfishness, and common sense as she did, I have not heard of them.

First I must tell of Joseph Balicki and what happened to him in the prison camp of Zakyna.

Main Characters

(Character ages are as at the beginning of the story. 5 years pass in the second plot section outlined below.)


Joseph Balicki is a former high school teacher in German occupied Poland, who was imprisoned after turning a picture of Hitler in his classroom to face the wall. He is the father of Ruth, Edek, and Bronia.


Jan (10) is an orphaned boy in Warsaw who steals food, has little or no respect for authority, and takes care of stray animals.


Ruth (nearly 13) is a caring, responsible, and determined girl who looks after her siblings and teaches local young children.


Edek (11), a member of the Polish resistance, is protective of his family but takes risks that are not always necessary.


Bronia (3) makes the best of circumstances and follows Ruth’s lead.


The novel has 29 chapters, which I have divided into 6 sections and an epilogue.
1. In chapters 1-5, the story of Joseph’s imprisonment in Zakyna work camp, his escape, and his attempt to reunite with his family in Warsaw is told.
2. In chapters 6-10, the plot is taken back to the night Joseph and subsequently his wife Margrit, were arrested, and the story of the Balicki children’s experience in Warsaw between 1940 and 1944 is told. Edek is taken away when he is caught smuggling food, and Ruth takes Jan into her and Bronia’s makeshift home.
3. In chapters 11-13, the story of Ruth and Bronia’s reunion with Edek in Posen is told. Reunited, and having learnt of the end of the war in Europe, the children head for a relative’s home in Switzerland, where their family had agreed to meet if anything separated them.
4. In chapters 14-18, the story of the contrast between Ruth’s sense of responsibility and judgment, and Jan’s (on their journey between Berlin and Bavaria) is told.
5. In chapters 19-24, the story of the children’s shelter at a Bavarian farm and their narrow escape from the Burgomaster, a Government official who has been employed to return Poles to Poland, is told.
6. In chapters 25-28, the story of the final leg of the children’s journey to Switzerland is told.
7. Chapter 29 is an epilogue telling how the children’s lives turn out.

Ensemble of Incidental Characters

Jan has a series of animals that he cares for: in section 1, he has a kitten; when he re-enters the story in section 2, he no longer has the kitten but has a rooster named Jimpy who dies in a food camp scrum at Posen in section 3; and in section 5, he befriends a dog named Ludwig who stows away and travels with them to the Swiss border before Jan is forced by circumstance to choose between saving the life of Ludwig or Edek.
There are numerous incidental characters throughout the story. In section 1, an old Polish couple hide Joseph from German Soldiers. In Section 2, Ivan, the Russian sentry, helps the children. In section 3, Jan helps a British Captain being harassed by a monkey escaped from the damaged Berlin Zoo, and is rewarded for his efforts. In section 4, Bavarian farmers, Mr and Mrs Wolff, shelter and assist the children. In section 5, Joe Wolski, an American soldier of Polish parents, gives them a lift to a camp at the Swiss border. In section 6, Ruth meets with the administrator of the camp.



I have selected Ruth’s tenacity as the primary theme to highlight here. That is, her persistent determination to bring her family back together.

Her family is separated when her father is arrested and taken to a work camp, and her mother is taken away the same night. Later that year, her brother Edek is arrested for food smuggling and taken away too. Following the battle of Warsaw, Ruth tries to find out what happened to Edek, through the Polish Welfare Office and through the occupying Russian Army. Her persistence pays off when a Russian sentry takes an interest in her problem and brings her news of Edek’s location. Upon travelling to Posen and reuniting with Edek, who is suffering from tuberculosis, it is up to Ruth to lead herself, Edek, Bronia, and Jan on a journey from Poland to Switzerland in the hope that her parents have survived and made it there themselves.

This tenactity includes aspects of responsible judgment, compassion, and inventiveness.

Responsibility and Judgment

Ruth’s responsibility and judgment is contrasted with that of Edek and Jan.

When their mother is taken away, Edek shoots at the German soldiers and Ruth tells him he shouldn’t have done it because they might come back for them. As they escape across the roof, the soldiers retaliate by destroying the Balicki’s home with grenades.

While living on the outskirts of Warsaw, Edek smuggles food for the Poles to provide relatively well for his siblings until he is caught by the Germans, whereas Ruth takes a less risky approach and also takes on the responsibility of caring for and teaching other children.

When Ruth took in Jan following the Battle of Warsaw, she discourages his stealing and later in the story he is sentenced to seven days detention for his involvement in the robbery of an American goods train between Berlin and Bavaria.


Ruth’s active compassion, not only for her family but also for others, sets her apart from others around her.

While on the outskirts of Warsaw, Ruth teaches local children, and later sets up a makeshift school in Warsaw.

In Warsaw, she takes Jan in, and even waits for him when he is detained for seven days, between Berlin and Bavaria.


Inventiveness is a quality shared by numerous characters in the story.

Joseph uses inventiveness in his escape from Zakyna prison camp. Jan uses inventiveness in helping Joseph make his way through the streets of German occupied Warsaw to jump aboard a train as it slows to turn a bend. Ruth uses it in her efforts to track down Edek. The Bavarian farmer, Kurt Wolff, uses it when he comes up with a plan for the children to escape the Burgomaster by river in canoes.


Ruth’s tenacity, guided by responsible judgment, compassion, and inventiveness, makes for a compelling, multi-faceted character that is a good example for younger readers, and is used to guide readers through an interesting setting.

Resonsibility, judgment, compassion, and inventiveness are qualities that are shared and contrasted with others characters throughout the novel.

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