Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Guest Post by author Helen Sedwick

The Inspiration Behind Ro, my Heroic Coyote
Guest Post by Helen Sedwick

Author Helen Sedwick
You might think a dog inspired me to create a coyote character, but actually it was a cat.

When I was writing COYOTE WINDS, a stray or feral kitten moved into our yard. About four months old, he darted past my window several times a day with a vole dangling from its mouth. He was thin, skittish and scruffy. 

I put out cat food, and the kitten hid in the bushes until I stepped away. Then he raced to the bowl and ate as fast as he could. Every day, I stood closer to the bowl until finally the kitten had to let me touch him before he could eat. To my surprise, and probably to his, the kitten was as hungry for touch as he was for kibble. Within days, he was pressing hard against my hand, rolling his head so I could scratch his favorite spots, purring deeply. Reminded that even animals want to be loved, I was inspired to create Ro, the coyote of COYOTE WINDS.  

At the opening of the novel, Ro, as a young pup, is caught outside in a dust storm. When thirteen-year old Myles finds him hours later, the pup is half-buried and limp from dehydration. So much grit has worked its way under one eyelid, it is swollen shut. Myles nurses the pup back to health, and they form the strong bond that so often connects a boy and his dog, or in this case, his coyote. 

When I wrote the chapters in Ro’s perspective, I tried to observe the world simply and without judgment, as I imaged an animal would do. His motivations are immediate--hunger, fear and the need to belong.  I wanted to capture the canine’s sense of play as Ro befriends the hog Spark Plug and “flies” in the back of the pickup truck. 

But Ro, like any interesting character, struggles with conflicts. He straddles the worlds of nature and man, accepted by neither. As much as he loves Myles, when he hears the wild coyotes Ro’s heart aches for the physical romp of the pack--shouldering his brothers in fake battles and sleeping in bundles of fur. But wild coyotes see him as a rival and attack him. When Ro skirts the farms of men, he hears bullets hiss through the grass around him.  

Mid-way through the novel, Myles drives Ro away because he fears the settled land has become too dangerous for the coyote. But Ro has nowhere else to go. He hovers nearby, watching as machines, fences, and dust take the place of grasses, mesquite and sage. He wants to warn the boy of a danger he senses, but doesn’t understand. Ro’s perspective gave me a way to observe the changing world without the overlay of human ambition to control it.  

COYOTE WINDS is set on the western prairie in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl. Many people do not know that the Dust Bowl was one of the worse man-made environmental disasters in history. Believing in the modern technology of the tractor and fertilizers, farmers plowed up dry, marginal land the size of Ohio in the 1920s. When drought hit in the 1930s, those vast acres of turned soil were lifted by the prairie winds, and the Dust Bowl was born. Ro provide me a way to describe that history through different eyes.

The longer I worked on COYOTE WINDS, the more I fell in love with Ro. He embodies my themes about loyalty to a person, a family, and a dream, and whether loyalty has limits.
By the way, coyotes have been successfully tamed in real life. Shreve Stockton, a writer and photographer in Wyoming, has a wonderful website about Charlie, her coyote which she adopted when he was ten days old.  


About that little kitten in our yard.  He has grown into a Budda-bellied, lushly-coated lap-lover who tolerates our dog’s overly enthusiastic affection and sleeps inside on cold nights. And he reciprocates our love by leaving slightly munched voles on the front steps. His name is Tomas.

Helen, thanks so much for contributing a guest post to The Fourth Musketeer.  I will think of Ro every time I see a coyote roaming around our Southern California neighborhood!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review Coyote Winds, by Helen Sedwick (Ten Gallon Press, 2013)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

I live in a very urban area of Southern California, but one with a healthy population of coyotes.  It's not at all uncommon to see one loping down the street while you're out walking your dog, no matter what the time of day or evening.  And in the early evening, you can hear them calling to each other if you're in the right place at the right time.  Although coyotes are common enough throughout the United States, there aren't many children's books about them.  So I was intrigued to read Coyote Winds, which combines two of my favorite genres, animal stories and historical fiction.

Helen Sedwick's novel alternates between the stories of two boys, Andy, a suburban kid in Evanston, Illinois, and his grandfather Myles, who grew up during the Dust Bowl on the Colorado prairies.  Andy has grown up with grandpa's stories about growing up on a farm during the Depression, as well as his corny jokes; now that his grandpa has recently died, Andy wants to discover his grandpa's world.  First he does so through a box of mementos and writings from his grandfather, and later first-hand by traveling to the old homestead.

Through Myles' story, Sedwick skillfully recreates the Colorado prairies, where farmers believed that with enough hard work and modern farming methods, they could realize the American dream of prosperity for themselves and their families.  Or is the prairie the farmer's enemy, trying to take back what belongs to it?   Myles' story starts in 1930, when as a thirteen-year old, he rescues a half-blind coyote pup who's lost in a dust storm, taking the coyote home to raise.  Coyotes were the enemies of the farmers, who shot them if they caught them near their livestock.  Nonetheless, Myles is determined to raise and tame the pup, much like his father is trying to tame the wild prairie landscape.  Sedgwick occasionally switches gears to narrate the action from the point of view of the coyote, who she is careful not to treat as a human character, but instead as an animal who remains half-wild.

Sedwick's novel succeeds in capturing the imagination of the reader with appealing characters, the spirit of adventure in the West, and the adversity of life during the Dust Bowl.  We see this through the eyes of Andy, Myles' grandson, who stands in for the young reader.  It's a novel I had a hard time putting down.

Helen Sedwick's novel was inspired by her father's stories of growing up on the prairie in the 1930's.  An excerpt from the novel can be found at her website.  

from The Daily Coyote (dailycoyote.net)

For a novel offering a completely different take on a coyote's story, you might want to check out adult novelist Elmore Leonard's very funny children's novel, A Coyote in the House, in which a coyote wants to trade places with a pampered German Shepherd movie star.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hanukkah Book Giveaway!

I am pleased to share with my readers today a charming new book just in time for Hanukkah, The Eighth Menorah, written by Lauren L. Wohl and illustrated by Laura Hughes.  An autographed copy is available to one of my lucky readers courtesy of publisher Albert Whitman & Company (just leave a comment with your e-mail for a chance to win).

In this picture book, young Sam is looking forward to Hanukkah in a few weeks, but when he and his Hebrew school friends make homemade menorahs for family gifts, Sam is not sure what to do--his family already has seven menorahs at home.  He's sure they have no need of another one!  But by the first night of Hanukkah, Sam has found a perfect solution to his problem, one that involves his beloved Grammy.

Lauren Wohl has created a heartwarming story about family that many children will identify with.  When I was growing up, we had only one menorah in our house, but in my own home, we have at least seven, including one shaped like a hippopotamus that I purchased as a Jewish museum in Cape Town, South Africa!  So I can easily understand the dilemma for young Sam--how many menorahs does one family need?  But a gift made with love will always find a home somewhere.  The story includes a brief summary of the story of Hanukkah, as told by Sam's Hebrew school teacher Ms. Zuckerman; this background provides some context for non-Jewish readers.  The colorful, child-like art work provides a perfect complement to the text.

For more great Hanukkah books, check out The Fourth Musketeer's top Hanukkah selections from 2012 and Stacey Shubitz's post from The Nerdy Book Club on her top 10 Hanukkah books.  There's such a great selection these days--it's not for nothing that the Jews are known as The People of the Book!


Friday, November 15, 2013

Blog Tour: Vicki Wittenstein and FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? and giveaway!

It's my pleasure to welcome to my blog today author Vicki Wittenstein, whose new book, For the Good of Mankind? tells the difficult but important history of human medical experimentation in a format suitable for middle school or high school students.  With the onset of the Common Core, Wittenstein's book is exactly the type of well-researched, provocative, and stimulating narrative non-fiction that teachers and libraries will be needing to put into students' hands.  Vicki was kind enough to answer some questions about her new book for The Fourth Musketeer.

Please leave a comment below with your e-mail address for a chance to win this fascinating new book!  (U.S. and Canada only, please)

1) What made you interested in writing a book for young people on the challenging topic of human medical experimentation?

Before writing for children and young adults I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. Injustices have always angered me, particularly when powerless people are taken advantage of, whether because of lack of education, poverty, mental capacity, race, sex—or as in the case with human medical experimentation, all of the above. The past ethical abuses of human medical experimentation inflicted pain, humiliation, and even death to so many people without a voice. I wanted readers to hear the voices, debate the issues, and never forget about these people.

I also enjoy writing and teaching about history. A discussion of human medical experimentation necessitates following a span of hundreds of years, from ancient times to the present.  So readers can absorb important historical events throughout time. But alongside the facts, they can also gain an understanding of how society’s ethics and morals reflected the time periods and changed accordingly. For example, the brutal and inhumane experimentation of African Americans during the nineteenth century would not have occurred without the institution of slavery.

How can society learn from past mistakes? How will readers face present day ethical challenges, not only in science and medicine, but in whatever field they pursue? These are the questions I continue to think about and that inspired my writing.

2) In your book, you discuss the early history of medical experiments on humans, including research on slaves, children, prisoners, soldiers, and others.  Many of these stories will surprise contemporary readers.   Was there a particular experiment that you learned of during your research that you found most shocking?

Before researching the book, I had no idea about the secret U.S. government radiation experiments that occurred during the Cold War. Manhattan Project scientists furiously at work developing the atomic bomb didn’t understand the effects of radiation on the human body. They authorized hundreds of secret experiments on unknowing people. I was very disturbed by these experiments. Manhattan Project physicians injected plutonium into eighteen people who randomly ended up in hospitals under their care. Imagine how betrayed you would feel if you were one of those people or a family member! Hundreds of pregnant women at a Vanderbilt University clinic drank a tonic they thought was good for their unborn babies, but turned out to be laced with radioactive iron. And the list of abuses goes on . . . .

3) How would you compare the medical experiments done by Nazi physicians in the concentration camps to human medical research before that time?

Earlier experiments in the U.S. were most often part of a general quest for understanding.  Doctors were desperate for cures and treatments for deadly diseases, like smallpox and polio. That being said, though, doctors often pushed the boundary between ethical and unethical practices, and many people were harmed.

In the nineteenth century, African American slaves were often bought just for the purpose of experimentation, and they suffered tremendous pain and humiliation. It’s incredibly difficult to even fathom this kind of degrading and inhumane treatment. And without a doubt, we continue to bear the scars in our collective conscious.

Yet, as tragic as many of the experiments were before World War II, the Nazi horrors raised the bar on inhumanity to unprecedented heights. Earlier medical experiments in the U.S. were never part of a government-sponsored program to annihilate an entire group of people. The Nazi goal of exterminating all the Jews and other so-called “inferior” people granted doctors the freedom to do whatever they pleased with concentration camp inmates. In fact, as far as the Nazi doctors were concerned, dead bodies were often more useful than live bodies:  cadavers then could be dissected to observe the ravages from experimentation. 

4) You point out in your book that despite legislation to protect the rights of human subjects, there are many possibilities for abuse, particularly in research done by American companies abroad, where there are typically fewer safeguards.  After your research, do you feel the whole system is fundamentally flawed because it relies on the profit motive?

No question about it, the profit motive is a big issue. Pharmaceutical companies experiment abroad because it’s cheaper and because government officials don’t monitor clinical trials as closely as they do in the U.S. But I don’t think the system is fundamentally flawed. 

The hallmarks of the Common Rule require that subjects give voluntary and informed consent, that experiments maximize the subjects’ benefits and limit their harm, and that subjects represent a diverse range of the population. Researchers are required to balance the individual’s right to be free from harm with the need for medical advancement. So ethical conduct hinges on how researchers and companies interpret and follow the enacted legislation and how the research is monitored. Fairness rests in large part with the companies who conduct the research, the Institutional Review Boards who authorize and set guidelines, and the watchdog government agencies. Given the thousands of clinical trials conducted every year, it’s amazing that the system even works as well as it does.

5) While reading your book, I couldn't help but wonder about your feelings about medical research on animals, who are unable to give consent but still are widely used in many drug experiments.  Please comment.

This is a difficult question for me. I love animals, and personally, I could never inflict harm on animals or people. Yet, animal experimentation is critical for medical advancement, and is usually the first step before human experimentation. But experimentation on animals must be humane. Although my book doesn’t address animal experimentation per se, I did explain the role of antivivisectionists in the 1800s. They opposed experimentation on all living creatures, and their strong stance helped shape humane policies for ethical experimentation on people. Just as it was important to hear the voices of antivivisectionists then, it’s critical to listen to those against animal experimentation today. Ultimately, a balanced legal and ethical framework for animal experimentation (and all medical experimentation) stems from a continued debate on what constitutes humane practices.

Thanks so much, Vicki!  For more on Vicki and her new book, check out her other blog tour stops:

Mon, Nov 4

Tues, Nov 5

Thurs, Nov 7

Fri, Nov 8

Mon, Nov 11

Tues, Nov 12

Wed, Nov 13

Thurs, Nov 14