Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: Until Tuesday

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him (Hyperion) by Luis Carlos Montalvan was an eye-opener for me on several accounts: PTSD, war, and service dogs. This true account of a wounded warrior and his remarkable partner, a service dog named Tuesday is an amazing story of the manifestation of war, profound loss, and love.

After reading Until Tuesday, I finally have a grasp of the all-consuming affects of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). When highly decorated Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan returns from his second tour of Iraq with serious, multiple injuries, his physical condition is treated but not what is his most crippling injury, PTSD.

PTSD is many things to different people, but its main manifestation is that of a dwelling disorder, the inability to move beyond the trauma. This condition often prevents war veterans from being able to continue their former lives. Many are unable to concentrate, to work, even to resume their lives with loved ones. Such was the case with Montalvan. He received medical treatment for his physical wounds, but his psychological wounds kept him from living a normal life.

Montalvan also shares very personal views of the Army which he loves, but which he feels isn’t giving sufficient support to the men and women who are on the ground fighting. Rather, he feels the Army is allowing civilians to run the war effort. This, he feels, is often the cause of the trauma suffered by warriors, the frustration of decisions made that belie the reasons for U.S. presence.

When The Wounded Warrior Project, a veteran service organization, sends an email with the subject, “WWP and Puppies Behind Bars,” Montalvan finally sees hope. This organization provides 30 dogs a year to place, free of charge, with veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan who are suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries or physical injuries.”

The minute he heard of this program Montalvan knew it would be his salvation. And it was. Through East Coast Assistance Dogs, the agency which receives dogs trained by inmates in prison, Montalvan was matched with Tuesday, a beautiful golden retriever.

At first, it was tough going. Tuesday suffered from abandonment when she lost her prison trainer. Together they gradually gained confidence and respect for one another.

A service dog has different responsibilities than a guide dog for the blind. A service dog gives psychological assistance, is trained to sense what his handler needs, whether it be a nudge of reassurance or leading the way through crowds, a frequently terrifying ordeal for many who suffer from PTSD. Tuesday knows 140 commands, many of which are practical commands such as bringing shoes or opening drawers. But his real value to Montalvan is as a best friend, an anchor when crowds and strangers surround him, and a kindred brother.

Until Tuesday is a powerful account of a wounded soldier and his dog. Their love and devotion are a tribute to an organization who has found a way to make people whole again.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Farewell Bend: A Place to Rest

When I read about the grinding hardships the pioneers endured, I marvel that the American West was settled at all. There are still plenty of wild, open spaces in eastern Oregon–it’s not hard to imagine their arduous journey across this arid country.

In 1843, 1,000 people left Missouri to travel to Oregon, to the “Garden of the World.” During the next two decades, 50,000 more would follow the Oregon Trail, 2,000 miles of what in 1848 emigrant Riley Root called “Landscape without soil.” In many places, the land produced barely enough to sustain the teams, and the fragile landscape eroded even more as the numbers of emigrants increased.

The little water they encountered was often tainted and caused sickness among people and animals. The weary travelers often had to make a choice whether to press on and lose oxen teams to fatigue or to give them rest and have them die of thirst.

By the time the travelers reached the Snake River, they found relief in clean water and fish, but also hardships in crossings, where drownings were not uncommon. After following the Snake River for 330 miles, the pioneers rested above a bend in the river, at a place they called “Farewell Bend” where they found respite to fortify them for the travel inland to Oregon City.

Today Farewell Bend State Recreation Area, a state park in Baker County, is still a lovely respite, a place to camp and enjoy the refreshing coolness of the Snake River. An Oregon Trail exhibit commemorates the site where pioneers rested and viewed the river for one last time before continuing westward.

Wagon ruts can still be seen north of the park. A small iron cross, visible from U.S. 30, marks the location where Snake River Shoshone Indians battled with pioneer travelers in 1860. Restored covered wagons rest at the park entrance and next to the Oregon Trail kiosk.

Farewell Bend: A place to remember, a place to reflect, a place to rest.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: Riding the Edge of an Era

Riding the Edge of an Era: Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail (High Plaines Press) by Diana Allen Kouris is a heartwarming memoir of a girl raised on a ranch bordering Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The youngest of six children, Diana Kouris grew up well acquainted with hard work and hard play, with the resiliency to thrive in both. Brown’s Park Livestock Ranch is situated in an area rich with history. Brave pioneers lived on this land; so did Butch Cassidy and others of his ilk.

Riding the Edge of an Era takes readers into the daily life of a loving family dedicated to each other, their livestock and the land that sustains them. As little children, they were entrusted with responsibilities that would be tough for adults to accomplish. High expectations were a part of life for this family and a necessity to exist in this rough country.

The three youngest siblings remain close to each other and to their parents through adulthood, returning to the ranch to help trail cattle to distant pastures, or to bring them in for market.

Throughout the book, photographs give additional flavor to Kouris’ story. Some characters, such as her father, seem bigger than life, but when you see his picture, you can see why. He’s the epitome of a tough, successful rancher.

Riding the Edge of an Era: Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail is an extraordinary story written by a woman steeped in a western ranching environment.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali (Bantam Books) by Gaile Parkin, is a wonderfully crafted story that takes place in the east African country of Rwanda.

Angel Tungaraza, is serious about the business she conducts in her home, baking cakes. To Angel, beautiful cakes are essential ingredients for celebrations. As she delves into the reason for the celebrations, she learns about her customers’ hopes, joys and sorrows.

Angel knows about sorrow. Both her adult children, a son and a daughter, have died and Angel and her husband Pius are raising their combined five grandchildren. As she balances her family’s life, Angel becomes entwined with her customers’ lives. We learn about the horror of Rwanda’s genocide and how it affected the people of Rwanda. During the genocide, the raping of women was a common occurrence, and along with that came widespread HIV/AIDS. The result of these horrific acts left shattered families and a society trying to carry on with the little they have left. Still, they strive to live with dignity.

As a huge fan of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, I found myself relating Angel’s ingenuity and cleverness to Precious Ramotswe. Baking Cakes in Kigali, however, has its own message, rhythm and compassion. It’s an extraordinary novel, full of laughs, tears and great satisfaction.

Author Gaile Parkin was born in Zambia and served as a VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) in Rwanda at the new university doing a wide range of work with the recovering country. Evenings and weekends, Ms. Parkin worked with women and girls who were survivors of the genocide. Many of the incidences in Baking Cakes in Kigali were inspired by stories she was told.