Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go. But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.
Category: Book Review
“confusion about the identity of her biological dad can be a door to discovering who a father really is.” (Emphasis added.)
There are days when I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find an antidote to racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves. We are born to these things as sparks fly upward, I suppose. I know I am. My friendship with Mohammad has been both the diagnosis and the beginning of a cure within me.
In 2012, Mohammad fled his Syrian village along with his wife and four sons, escaping to Jordan through the wilderness. Four years later he sat across from Shawn Smucker in a small conference room in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Though neither of them knew it, Mohammad had arrived in Shawn’s life just in time.
This is the story of a friendship. It is the story of a middle-aged writer struggling to make a living and a Syrian refugee struggling to create a life for his family in a strange and sometimes hostile land. It’s the story of two fathers hoping for the best, two hearts seeking compassion, two lives changed forever. It’s the story of our moment in history and the opportunities it gives us to show love and hospitality to the sojourner in our midst.
Anyone who has felt torn between the desire for security and the desire to offer sanctuary to those fleeing war and violence will find Shawn Smucker a careful and loving guide on the road to mercy and unity.
Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor by Shawn Smucker
Published by Revell Publishing Company (October 16, 2018)
Format: Paperback, 208 pages
Disclosure: My thanks to Revell Publishing Company for providing a copy of
Once We Were Strangers for my review. Opinions expressed here are mine.
Where to Buy:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound
Note: This review first appeared on Puddletown Reviews.
Review of Once We Were Strangers
I cannot remember a time when reading a book had the transformative effect upon my life that Shawn Smucker’s Once We Were Strangers has had. The first few pages unfold into a story that provides a perspective of two lives–cultivated by different cultures and traditions–coming together in a way I’ve never experienced.
Imagine yourself traveling from Syria to Lancaster, PA. That’s a distance of 5,792 miles by air. But parts of that mileage you have either walked or relied on buses or cabs, usually in the night. You have not traveled alone. Your wife and four sons, the youngest of whom is only a toddler. You are leaving behind everything you have known for most of your life. You are taking a risk in a war-torn hostile country. Yet, what other options do you have to protect your family?
In four years time, after this agonizing journey, Mohammad, his wife Moradi, and their four sons arrive in Lancaster, PA. Their journey has been difficult, risky, and long. They are supported by a local organization, and one day a local resident of Lancaster, Shawn Smucker, arrives to meet Mohammad for the first of many visits and gatherings. They are hopeful that this book I’m reviewing will reach a point of going out into the world to tell Mohammad’s story and what is inevitably a similar story to that of most refugees in a new land.
After Shawn’s cautionary statement that Mohammad shouldn’t get his hopes as nothing might come of this effort, Mohammad’s translator shares the following:
Mohammad says it is impossible for nothing to come of this. He is glad you are willing to hear his story, and no matter what happens you are friends now. That is all that matters. (Emphasis mine.)
Friends. Something we take for granted because most of us have a long history in our country. We may have moved from one city to another or perhaps one state to another. But we’ve not likely moved as many miles as Mohammad’s family did. Yet, Mohammad knows that friends are the foundation for his family’s success in a new land.
If friendships weren’t so important to all of us, where would all the social media outlets be? How clever of Facebook to use the phrase “Add Friend.” Friends bring us a sense of security, loving compassion, support, encouragement. As a refugee from another country, it seems refreshing that Mohammad was eager to find and make friends. This was something to which he was already accustomed.
A glimpse into the bridge-building, fear-silencing, life-affirming gift of cross-cultural friendship. This is an important and timely message.
–PETER GREER, president and CEO, HOPE International;
coauthor of Rooting for Rivals
There is so much I want to tell you about Mohammad and Shawn’s friendship building and about their families coming together as friends. To tell you too much robs you of the experience I had when I completed my reading of this short book. It takes away the element of transforming your existence in a country where many want to come to our country, and many have already done so. They too are people in search of friends, simple friendships, communities of support.
This need of something so simple touched me deeply when I realized how many friends I have–not on social media but in real life. It is incumbent on us to pass along those good gifts we’ve received. So, if I’m blessed with multiple friendships, it doesn’t hurt if I reach out and befriend another, and another, and another. In so doing, perhaps some of my friends will become friends too.
This story needs to be told–and then? It needs to be replicated in some way throughout all our communities.
— TSH OXENREIDER, author of At Home in the World:
Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe
The last two quotes contained in this review are from advance praise for Once We Were Strangers. I have included them because they are relevant to what I believe is the importance of Mohammad and Shawn’s story.
Lastly, a few words from Shawn about this book:
I feel like I should have a disclaimer on the cover: ‘No one was harmed in the creation of this book.” But something was harmed. Something happened.’
My belief that refugees have little to offer was crushed. My belief that they need my help more than they need my friendship was brought low. My deep-seated, hidden concern that every Muslim person might be inherently violent or dedicated to the destruction of the West was exposed and found to be false.
* * *
The help I was prepared to offer was help given at arm’s length, aid that would cost me perhaps a tiny bit of time and maybe a few dollars but not much than that.
But I, not Mohammad, needed more than that. Actually, it turns out we both needed the same thing. We both needed a friend.
My Recommendation: I can’t emphasize enough the life-changing impact of this story. Nothing appears in these pages that is from someone’s imagination nor that has been fictionalized. It is a true story recounted by Shawn Smucker’s indelible excellence in his writing style. His descriptive powers given to Mohammad’s story of leaving Syria are filled with reality. This is a book that leaders in all religions need to read, men and women in power in our governments (county, state, and country) should read. We need to read it and step out in faith and hope to make a difference and make a friend. I highly recommend Once We Were Strangers.
Meet Shawn Smucker
Shawn Smucker is the author of the young adult novels The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There, as well as the memoir Once We Were Strangers. He lives with his wife and six children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at http://www.shawnsmucker.com.
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The compulsively readable, behind-the-scenes memoir that takes readers inside the Obama White House, through the eyes of a young staffer learning the ropes, falling in love, and finding her place in the world.
From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir by Beck Dorey-Stein
Published by Spiegel & Grau (July 10, 2018)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir/Politics/Obama White House
Source: ARC provided by NetGalley
Format: Kindle, 352 pages
Where to Buy:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Book Depository
FCC Disclaimer: I received a copy of an ARC from NetGalley via the publisher in exchange for an honest and fair review. Opinions expressed are my own.
In 2012, Beck Dorey-Stein was just scraping by in DC when a posting on Craigslist landed her, improbably, in the Oval Office as one of Barack Obama’s stenographers. The ultimate DC outsider, she joined the elite team who accompanied the president wherever he went, recorder and mic in hand. On whirlwind trips across time zones, Beck forged friendships with a tight group of fellow travelers–young men and women who, like her, left their real lives behind to hop aboard Air Force One in service of the president. But as she learned the ropes of protocol, Beck became romantically entangled with a consummate DC insider, and suddenly, the political became all too personal. Set against the backdrop of a White House full of glamour, drama, and intrigue, this is the story of a young woman making unlikely friendships, getting her heart broken, learning what truly matters, and discovering her voice in the process.
Meet the Author:
Beck Dorey-Stein is a native of Narberth, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Wesleyan University. Prior to her five years in the White House, she taught high school English in Hightstown, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Seoul, South Korea.
This is her first book.
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Buy the Little Ones a Dolly: A Memoir by Rose E. Bingham
Published by HenschelHAUS Publishing (December 1, 2017)
Genre: Memoir/Family Relationships/Mental Health
Format: Kindle, 260 pages
In a small, close-knit Wisconsin community, a mother goes into town and never returns. It’s 1952 and Rose, at 15, is the oldest of seven children, the youngest of whom is only 3. As hard as Rose and her father tried to keep things together on the home front, with the help of kind relatives and sympathetic neighbors, in 1954, the children were ultimately placed in an orphanage, and later split up into five different foster families.
“Buy the little ones a dolly” were some of the last words Rose received from her mother in a Christmas letter, sent without a return address. Rose made it her lifelong mission to maintain contact among the siblings. Rose intimately escorts the reader on her journey through trials, tribulations, joy, and love. The mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance comes to light 59 years later.
The first sentence in the synopsis above is almost unfathomable to most parents, especially mothers. However, it is something that happens more often than we probably know. Given the time frame, it likely happened frequently in a family the size of Rose Bingham’s. It was this sentence that caught my attention because of its similarity to an incident in my mother’s family history.
When I picked up Buy the Little Ones a Dolly, I had no intention of giving up everything else I had on my to-do list. If I remember correctly, I carried it to the kitchen while I prepared our evening meal that day. Yes, it’s that compelling.
Not only is Rose Bingham an exceptional writer, she tells a story of rising up at the age of 15 to the role of mother of six younger siblings, a role which takes courage, strength, faith, and a positive outlook. Rose tells her story with sincerity and authenticity. I continually found myself wanting to sit down and visit with Rose, and since I couldn’t, the book was an excellent substitute for real-time conversation.
In addition to caring for her siblings, often in the absence of their father as well, Rose dreams of solving the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and where she is. Occasional letters bear no return address. Rose is blessed with pluck and hope and eventually, the mystery is unraveled and revealed to her readers.
Be sure to keep tissues handy. They’ll be useful.
Meet the Author:
Rose Bingham is a retired registered nurse. She graduated from St. Francis School of Nursing in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and received her BSN from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. She has always enjoyed writing poetry but has written a memoir. Rose’s memoir is about moving on after the disappearance of her mother. A three year study by Lynn Davidman, a professor of sociology, of men and women who had lost their mothers, discovered many go on to careers such as nursing. There are four nurses in Rose’s family.
Rose and her husband, Mike, reside in Wisconsin Dells, Wi. They have six children, seventeen grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren, and a spoiled dog, Rylee.
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What if you woke up one day, living with a family member who had changed into an entirely different person? What if she were an older sibling you had always admired and strived to be like? And what if you were an insecure preteen when it all started? What would that do to your life?
Martha Graham-Waldon’s memoir entitled, Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia, chronicles the trajectory of her sister’s thirty-year battle with schizophrenia. Two years younger, the author watched her beloved sister descend into madness, nearly pulling the author down with her into a shadowy and baffling black hole of despair.
Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia by Martha Graham-Waldon Published by Black Opal Books (November 14, 2015)
Genre: Memoir/Family Relationships/Mental Health
Format: Kindle, 278 pages
FCC Disclosure: Thank you to the author for providing a copy of this book.
AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | INDIEBOUND
Review of Nothing Like Normal
In her memoir, Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia, Martha Graham-Waldon shares the story of her family dealing with an insidious mental health issue. The author was a younger sister who had shared her world with her sister, and then watches her sister’s long battle with schizophrenia. Life changes for both in drastic and intense ways.
Graham-Waldon allows her reader to share in the most intimate of scenes the deterioration of the relationship with her sister and the impact not only on the family, but the greatest struggles clear in the author’s life.
With eloquence and artistry, the author takes us on a journey most of us have not experienced. Or perhaps in our family, the journey has been held secret. In either way, we come away from reading Nothing Like Normal with a birds’ eye view of what a life lived in the midst of the downward spiraling of a victim of schizophrenic experiences, all the while impacting the relationships once held dear.
As a reader and writer of memoir, I appreciated Graham-Waldon’s honesty in her writing of Nothing Like Normal. Writing the truth in a story with such traumatic experiences is not easy. The author accomplishes this well.
I highly recommend this book to those confronting the experience of living with or caring for a family member with mental health issues, specifically schizophrenia. The author’s insights in living with and growing up faced with the dramatic and hurtful changes in her familial relationships are revealing and first-hand.
Meet Martha Graham-Waldon
I am a writer, spiritual entrepreneur and armchair activist who happily resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California with my family and a menagerie of pets. My articles have been published locally, internationally and online. I am a winner of the Women’s Memoirs contest for a vignette from my memoir in the eBook Tales of Our Lives. A member of the National Association of Memoir Writers, I love travel, the outdoors, Jazzercise and music. My debut book, the memoir Nothing Like Normal—Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia was published by Black Opal Books on November 14, 2015.
Connect with Martha:
Website | Goodreads | Facebook