Friday, December 5, 2014

Maus: One Man's Ancestry is a Society's History Lesson

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The Holocaust, an event that has been seared onto the memories and history books of the world, an event fanatically gruesome yet so diligently efficient it has overshadowed genocides that have wiped out several times more people than the mere 6 million victims of the Nazis.  However, as time passes, the events from the 1930's and 40's continues to grow more and more distant to us as a society.  As time moves on and survivors, along with their memories, die, the Holocaust will inevitably become just another catastrophe in the history of mankind.  It will lose the human tragedy element of it, the guilt, the shame, the fear, the overbearing shadow of an event too big for its survivors and their descendants to even start to come to terms with; it risks becoming just another chapter in a textbook.

Yet, to one man, American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the Holocaust will never be just another chapter.  It is the defining chapter... yet he didn't even live it.  His father was a Holocaust survivor; it became a permanent part of Vladek's life, one that shaped who he was, as a husband, a father, a person.  Spiegelman constantly felt hounded by the specter of the long over Holocaust that his father felt, thus it became a focal point for his career.  Speigelman began his comic career working for underground magazines and newspapers.  He had several successful strips that ran in various publications, as well as being the creator of the Garbage Pail Kids.  However, it was the frequent strips about his father's experience in the Holocaust and how that affected their relationship that kept coming back to Spiegelman.  He would base comic strips off his father's anecdotes during the Holocaust, letting his father see them and discuss them (sometimes with good results, sometimes with antagonistic guilt trips).  With more and more information from his father, Spiegelman started conducting interviews with him about his experiences, chronicling Vladek's life from the early 1930's to the end of World War 2.  These interviews culminated in Maus: A Survivor's Tale in 1991, a graphic novel.  Graphic novels are books written entirely in comic book form, with pictures, dialogue, and only scant narration to lead the story.  Highly reviewed and a critical success, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in the Special Citations and Letters Category, becoming the first graphic novel to win such a prize.  Maus has been cited as bringing graphic novels, which had been a small and mostly underground field of novels, into the forefront, later making graphic novels one of the most popular book types for both young adults and adults.

Spiegelman's idea was that using a graphic novel would better record his father's story; however, instead of using humans, he used an anthropomorphic animal element.  The idea behind the use of animals for people came from the idea of certain races of people being 'subhuman' or like animals.   He also believed that the use of animals to represent different races would expound on the absurdity that people were different due to race and that the theology of the Nazis that targeted Jews was comical.  The use of animals was also intended to help the reader better understand the politics, however preposterous, of the time period and to illustrate what exactly the Nazis thought divided them from others.  The Jewish people are depicted as mice, since they were seen as terminable vermin by the Nazis.  Cats are used in the portrayal of Nazis, a classic enemy of mice.  Polish characters are shown as pigs, since Vladek and his family were sold out by a Polish man.  There is a haunting human element that comes from the use of animals.  It incites a strong sense of vulnerability of the Jews during the Nazi regime and acutely conveys the sense of fear of the enemy, the Nazis, or in this case, the cats.  The entire novel is black and white; the is no depiction of color, no distraction from the story at hand. The cartoons are simplistic yet detailed, a beautiful example of the talent and pure artistry of Spiegelman.  Despite using animals, these cartoon panels do not have a trace of cuteness or fun in them.  It is perhaps due to the stark contrast of the events being told and the medium being used that a deep sense of tragedy and pain is conveyed.  As far as graphic novels go, the illustrations do not clash with the dialogue.  Both are succinctly clear and concise, making the novel extremely captivating and easy to read.  First time graphic novel readers will not struggle with this novel; Spiegelman does an artful job of making the story flow and not confusing the reader.
Courtesy of

Maus is separated into two sections: My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began; the first is Vladek's experiences leading up to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  This is a type of first person account of history and it does not fail to deliver.  Spiegelman represents his father's words and memories exactly from their interviews and it gives great insight to the family life of people leading up to the Nazi invasion of Europe.  Spiegelman does not sugarcoat his father's actions or words; at time, Vladek seems like a jerk.  Spiegelman does a wonderful job using the cartoons along with his father's stories to portray the growing sense of unease and unrest spreading through Europe in the late 1930's among the Jewish populations.  And Here My Troubles Began brings us to a point in adult Spiegelman's life, where he is grappling with his father's growing eccentricity and anger.  This is the part of the novel that covers Vladek's time in Auschwitz and it truly a heartbreaking, yet interesting account of how one could survive.

The interactions between father and son periodically break the story to illustrate how the past has dominated and shaped not only Vladek's life but also Spiegelman's.  Spiegelman, both as a child and as an adult, is haunted by memories that are not his but are of the past, a time when he wasn't even alive.  He is the product of two survivors and their actions and beliefs are purely guided from their past and survival.  The Holocaust stains every family interaction, every familial connection they have.  The label of survivor runs undercurrent to both Vladek's and Spiegelman's actions.  This phenomenon is common; it is a type of survivor guilt that is passed down through generations of families.  He cannot escape a past he did not experience.  This is a significant topic that is not commonly broached during discussions of the Holocaust, yet Spiegelman lays out his own personal examples to better show people how far reaching the Holocaust still is.
Spiegelman's self portrait,
courtesy of

What makes Maus a valuable read for not only graphic novel enthusiasts (a must due to the beautiful illustrations and the significance it played in reviving the medium), but to history buffs as well is the honest depiction of the Holocaust, its victims and survivors, and the ancestors left to burden the tragedy.  The underlying fear, guilt, shame, and horror of the Holocaust continue to reach into the Jewish and European populations today, with ancestors still feeling the aftershocks of surviving (and perpetrating) the Holocaust.  The Holocaust, in Spiegelman's opinion, has served as a large, common bond that ties all Jewish people together; the benefits of that, however, are possibly less than positive, according the Spiegelman.  He sees that the continuation of suffering from the Holocaust, long after it's end, is what will always paint the Jewish community. It painted every moment of his father's life; Vladek never found closure from it.  It also influenced Spiegelman's life for a long time, which is what led him to start Maus. There continue to be studies and books done about the lasting effects of World War 2 and the Holocaust on today's modern society.  However, there tends to be a lack of emotion and pure humanness in the academic works.  It is up to books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Maus that will help society never forget the horror incurred during that time period.  Perhaps, with accounts like these, we as a society will not forget.  Perhaps then, we can avoid repeating history.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Executing History Perfectly- Agnes Magnúsdóttir and her "Burial Rites"

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Today, Iceland is a prime example of a country absolutely thriving in the modern, changing world.  It is at the top of the game in education, technology, human rights, and regularly tops the stats lists for one of the best and safest places to live in the world.  Yet, 200 years ago, Iceland was a desolate, harsh country, mostly empty space, with a smattering of extremely close-knit, interwoven communities, which feared strangers and change.  This setting, chilly in both the physical landscape and the social one, is where author Hannah Kent sets her novel, Burial Rites.  Burial Rites focuses on the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, in 1830.  A brilliant combination of historical fact and fiction, Burial Rites is a lyrical, somber, yet beautiful novel about love, betrayal, and the ability to overcome first judgments.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir and two others are accused of the brutal murder of their employer.  Two of the three are condemned to die.   Kent explores what could have happened; the event itself and Agnes are both hard to pinpoint down in the historical record.  Agnes is known only from the court and execution records.  However, it is a fact that, while awaiting Copenhagen's final decision on her fate, Agnes is sent to work for the family of a local district officer; the real family is portrayed in the novel.  It is this aspect of the ordeal that Kent makes her story.  Agnes's initial arrival is met with almost open hostility and distrust; after all, she is a convicted murderess.  Also thrust into the spotlight is a hesitant, uncertain pastor (also based on a real person), who has been instructed to counsel Agnes in her remaining days and to help her seek penance for her crime.  All persons who encounter Agnes are unhappy to be doing so; they are fearful of her, fearful of her crime, although they were also fearful of the man she killed.  Through the everyday interactions and work performed, both the depth and complexity of Agnes is revealed, leaving the family burdened with her questioning her, themselves, and their overall faith in God and in Iceland.

Agnes tells her story to the pastor, making Burial Rites literally a story within a story... and surprisingly, this works.  Agnes's storytelling gives character and emotion to the novel; the story of day to day life with the family sets up an excellent illustration of the setting and the way of life back then.  Agnes's personal history is largely fictional; however, it is convincing.  Kent does a wonderful job of portraying the stark poverty of the lower classes of Iceland and how their lives are completely in the hands of the upper class, resulting in a tumultuous lifestyle of near-slavery, constant movement between employers, and never-ending poverty and misery, especially for women.  Put this situation in a setting of frigid winters, nearly uninhabitable landscapes, and suspicious and intolerant townspeople, and the reader can see that there was no hope for Agnes from the beginning.  Nevertheless, the reader also sees that Agnes is highly intelligent, introspective, and serious.  She does not take her emotions lightly, thus ending up in the volatile situations that leads her to kill. Her story is heartbreaking, yet there is a certain amount of strength that is the undercurrent for her tale.  She never gives up, never doubts herself.  This strength lends itself to a beautiful character, albeit a murderess.  As a person, Agnes herself is what creates the crux of the story: can someone convicted of a murder be a good person?  Can morals and laws be ambiguous to the point where the convicted is the victim?
Author Hannah Kent, courtesy of

Agnes's passion and recklessness play a perfect parallel to the other main character,  Iceland.  The weather, the rugged landscape, and the unforgiving nature of rural living in Iceland all contribute to the demeanor of the people who live there.   Kent, despite being an Australian, paints a haunting portrait of a country and its people at odds with itself and with a changing world.  The reader can see how year after year of rough and hard living and coexistence with one of the world's most extreme climates has turned the Icelanders into hardy, cold, sensible, yet highly superstitious people.  Agnes's character, which is different from their own, causes whispers of witchcraft and sorcery.  This is almost in complete contrast to the way they view their lifestyle, which is logically and realistically.  The beauty of Iceland lies within its mountains, its proximity to the ocean, its streams, and the summer vegetation. The book is worth reading solely for the representation of Iceland, a country that is not usually featured in novels.  However, the reader will get a succinct and memorable setting from Kent, who does not shy away from lengthy setting descriptions or from just pulling the reader away from the story for a bit to enjoy the country side.

This is not a mystery.  There is a crime, yes, but there is no solving the problem.  We know from the outset that Agnes is executed; it is a historical fact.  However, Burial Rites is more than worth reading.  It is worth several reads.  One will simply not be able to forget the daunting facets of living in Iceland; Kent makes their lives not romantic, but seeming trials of tenacity.  Burial Rites will leave you questioning.  Questioning morals, law, punishment, and just what exactly is a crime.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do Not Be "Fool"ed by Shakespeare

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Oh, the classics. We read them because they were perhaps revolutionary for the time period, thus we are enlightened by the antiquity yet still taught by the applicable lessons in them. Or we read them because our mean high school teachers forced us to. One of those commonly required authors is William Shakespeare; he wrote seemingly endless amounts of fodder for future English classes. Yet, one man saw greatness in a particular Shakespeare play. He saw the potential for humor, gore, smack talk, smut, and an endless amount of sarcasm in King Lear... he saw his eleventh literary creation, Fool.

Fool is the story of Pocket, King Lear's court jester. Pocket is a witty, highly intelligent, manipulating, kind, crude, sweet man, who is subtly the voice of reason in Lear's crumbling kingdom and family. Fool follows the original King Lear story line... and that's about it. The characters are much more richly detailed, their interactions more complex, emotional, and conniving. Pocket is stuck in the middle as Lear divides his kingdom and falls into a pit of self-pity. Pocket decides that it is up to him to solve the crisis and the reader will see how King Lear's plot ACTUALLY moved along.

Christopher Moore is no stranger to humor, crudity, and controversy. His earlier books revolve around a strange, fictitious community with a penchant for attracting wackos, people on the run, supernatural forces, and plain tomfoolery. In 2002, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal was published and tongues started wagging about Moore's writing; reviews ranged from scandalized to adored. (It is a great book; however, if you are delicate, it might not be the book for you!) Moore forged ahead, cranking out books with his ideas ranging from vampires to his favorite fiction community to death hounds. In 2009, Fool arrived on the scene. During this time, readers had seen a deluge of "retold classics"; no one could escape Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Yet, Fool is not a retold classic. It is the classic story told from a different perspective, the one of the jester, who, in most stories from the time period, is just a background character. There is none of the flowery, aged language that we suffered through with Shakespeare; Moore uses modern language for his dialogue only slightly peppered with old English (mostly for sarcasm's sake), which adds a very entertaining twist for the time period. Like Shakespeare, Moore doesn't waste time with lengthy descriptions of settings or background stories. He too jumps straight into the fray that is King Lear's family and kingdom. Moore has an distinct writing style; he combines wit, humor, and stark detail, with twisted, complicated story lines that leave the reader fully immersed in the story and in the characters' lives. His characters and their escapades are memorable; you cannot help but laugh at their shenanigans and chaos. However, Moore also weaves sorrow, anger, and a sense of moral dilemma in each novel; thus, while humorous, each will leave the reader thinking about the story, the outcomes, and the characters long after they have finished the book.

There is a certain amount of crude language and adult scenes in the novel. However, there is a purpose with every adult scene (or mention of women with "a generous spirit in the dark"); marriage, sex, and relationships all play a huge part in the decisive actions in King Lear, thus they play the same role in Fool, only with copious amounts of humor and cheek involved. There is nothing horribly graphic; however, like with Lamb, Fool has raised several eyebrows with the unchecked language and the compromising situations that several characters find themselves in.

Moore has not written anything outlandishly obscene or awful. He is merely joining a growing crowd
Author Christopher Moore,
courtesy of
of authors, like Carl Hiassen, Robert Olen Butler, David Sedaris, and many others, who write without pretension and without the fear of offending others. They write real life-like interactions, situations, and scenes; life is chaotic, funny, and awkward. Critics have chastised Moore for his destruction of a classic. Others, however, have praised Moore for resurrecting a play that almost no one reads for joy. He adapted a story that has solid morals, lessons, and emotions (King Lear is one of the most emotionally turbulent Shakespeare plays) and made it readable for the current generations. Fool is a wonderfully written, thoroughly enjoyable book. It does not subtract from the original; in fact, to readers who enjoyed King Lear, Fool almost enhances the story line, giving life, breathe, and personality to characters whose surroundings, etiquette, and beliefs are out of date and hard to relate to. Critics must remember that Shakespeare's play were not famous because of flowery language, hidden literary tools, and deeply convoluted literary meanings and metaphors (if I had a dollar for every time a teacher said, "But what does it mean?!"...); Shakespeare's writings were famous because it captured the human condition and the characters had emotions that we all feel and that we all hide. His characters range from being saviors of their peers to cold-blooded, ambitious murderers. He became famous for exploring the human emotion in play, which had not been done before. Fool does the same thing. We see the characters at their worst and at their best and it makes us wonder how we would react in similar situations. Shakespeare and Moore, centuries apart, both capture the human spirit: all the filth, the crudeness, the hilarity, and the beauty that life comes with in their works.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Death of Bees"- Destroys and Restores Your Emotions

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"Today is Christmas Eve.
Today is my birthday.
Today I am fifteen.
Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved."

Right off the bat, you know that The Death of Bees (2012) is going to be rough.  This is a book about horribly neglectful and abusive parents; the pitfalls of the government's policies on child welfare; misplaced and malicious judgement made about people; growing up in general; and the tenacity that children and teenagers have to survive their situations no matter how dire.  The book is gritty and in your face; the author does not shy away from the violence and neglect that pervades homes and families.  Author Lisa O'Donnell's debut novel, The Death of Bees does not hesitate to shock; it is the shock factor of the novel that jolts the reader to the realization that this story is one that could very well happen. O'Donnell uses short, abrupt descriptions to create the stark surroundings that the girls live in.  The realism is further conveyed through the dialogue between the characters.  It is real, emotional, secretive at times, and also full of slang that normal teenagers and children would use.  O'Donnell has a distinctive style that keeps the story moving along quickly, but also embeds the story into the reader's mind and soul.

In layman's terms, Marnie and her younger sister, Nelly's, lives are terrible.  Their parents are violent drug addicts, who have little time for their children.  Marnie reflects throughout the novel about her having to care for Nelly since Nelly was a baby. Nelly, who appears to have autism and is very brilliant and mature for her young age, is burdened by the fact that they are keeping a huge secret. The critical plot point for the novel is not revealed at once.  Rather, the situation is slowly and painfully revealed to the reader through the interactions between the characters and flash-backs.  When they find that both their parents are dead, they have no choice but to keep it a secret. However, the secrecy of the two leads to suspicions from their neighbor, Lennie, a homosexual man who is ostracized in the neighborhood due to a scandal; Lennie's dog seems intent on digging in the girls' backyard and Lennie does not quite buy the whole 'our parents are just on vacation' story.

Lisa O'Donnell, courtesy of
O'Donnell does not pull any punches with The Death of Bees. To the outside world, they seem like two deadbeat girls.  However, O'Donnell paints an enlightening family portrait of them; they are two smart girls who are living under the shadow of their parent's drug use, even after death. They are determined to stay together out of love and camaraderie. The realism portrayed in the parents' drug use, and the far reaching consequences of it, is startling.  We see how one of the main villains of the story is the government and it bureaucracy.  O'Donnell makes a poignant, yet firm point about the results of trying to tear apart siblings who have nothing but each other.  Time and time again, the Child Protection services from the government flit in and out of their lives, not really doing anything, not really helping the girls like they should. We see how the girls' fear of being separated by the government drives their actions, making the government possibly the most despicable character in the book. Their fear only drives them closer, which in turn cements their relationship; they are tough sisters who will stick together no matter what. O'Donnell really explores the topic of how government action, especially after the fact of neglect and abuse, is more destructive to the girls' lives than if they would have been just left alone. That is quite possibly O'Donnell's main point: one is left to their own devices when everyone else around them fails to help.  

Yet, there is an underlying note of hope throughout the whole novel.  Rays of light and hope permeate through the grime of the main characters' lives, making the novel suspenseful in it's own right.  The one person who cares enough to try to help is the neighborhood pariah.  Lennie's homosexuality poses problems throughout the book.  He is cruelly discriminated against; however, he is the only adult in the novel who wants to selflessly help the girls and he demonstrates the greatest amount of kindness and understanding.  Lennie is a beautiful character, perhaps the best written of the entire novel.  A juxtaposition to the despised drug addict and alcohol class in the area, Lennie is shunned because of his homosexuality.  This isolation puts him in an awkward position, one where he has to chose self-preservation or chose the girls that have become his eccentric family.  O'Donnell weaves the story in a way to where the reader does not really know who is actually the main character, if it's the girls that need redemption and love so badly or if it's the man who needs the same.  The outcome is sublimely dramatic; the reader is thrown off course and then treated to a whirlwind that leaves them breathless and hopeful.  

This is a beautiful book about different lives coming together. Lennie, Marnie, and Nelly are all in the same boat; they are preemptively judged by those around them and tossed aside, labeled as no-goods.  The pain and suffering that they endure, however, leads to hope.  O'Donnell uses the horror of their lives, the sadness, the loneliness, to illustrate that their is always hope, even in the most unexpected places. It is a beautiful piece of fiction.  This novel never quite tears you down; you keep rooting for Marnie and Nelly, despite their setbacks.  You begin to think in their terms and realize that nothing should tear you down completely.  It is a story about survival, acceptance, and love.  It is not elegant or academic.  Yet, it examines the human condition and what we do to survive in such a way, it makes you question your own ability to withstand life's challenges.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Making Crime and Chemistry Charming: Flavia de Luce

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Flavia de Luce does not go looking for trouble; it just happens to find her.  She does not mean to make the police look bad; she just cannot help that she knows more about chemistry and science than they do.  So, armed with her immense knowledge of self-taught chemistry and her dogged persistence, Flavia does what any 11 year old girl would do: she solves the crime. A creation of Canadian author Alan Bradley, Flavia and her family were first introduced in 2009'sThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a delightful, twisted mystery involving boarding schools, dead birds, and stamps. Bradley continued with Flavia's genius chemistry-centered answers to crime in The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010), A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011), I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (2011), Speaking from Among the Bones (2013), and most recently, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014).

Growing up in a post- WW2 English village as one of the last members of a worn-out prestigious family name and ruined fortune, Flavia displays the famous hereditary de Luce genius and also a personal knack for danger.  She dabbles in poisons, daydreams about her missing beauty/genius of a mother, and avoids her remaining family: her stoically mournful father, her wistfully dramatic sister, Ophelia, and her bookish but blasé sister Daphne.  Their family is all that is left of a once proud, immensely talented family; the quirkiness and the genius of the de Luces lent itself too often into madness and/or complete detachment from the outside world.  Haunted by the specter of their adored mother and wife (who disappeared when Flavia was two) and desperate to maintain their sprawling estate almost as an homage to her, the de Luces keep to themselves, interacting with the outside world but not with each other.  With lots of free time and a fully equipped chemical lab (one ancestor was obsessed with chemistry), Flavia has no choice but to get involved in her own crime investigations, much the chagrin of the local constables.  She is the type of character that is compelling, since you do not know whether to hate her or love her.  Her age and maturity can be trying; Bradley has a firm grasp on the annoying qualities of an 11 year old.  Nonetheless, the reader cannot help but be enchanted by the precocious girl, who uses her tender age to con adults into letting her in on secrets she uses to her advantage and also uses her astonishing knowledge to find clues that the normal person would have missed.

Bradley paints a melancholic yet nostalgic picture of a tumultuous time in English history.  The great, crumbling fortunes and estates of an England long gone due to war and economic downturn are at the heart of these novels' settings.  We can see the old ways of life clashing with the upcoming, more modern way of life; these clashes often lead the comic relief, confusion, or the oft- poignant reality that life is not going to be the same anymore for the villagers of Bishop's Lacey, simply from the fast-pace times that have followed the war.  For having never visited England, Bradley paints an accurate and picturesque idea of the English countryside.  The reader is treated to the quaint comings and goings of the villagers, the wildfire of small-town gossip, and the ever-present suspicion of people who are not from Bishop's Lacy.  The villagers are well-rounded additional characters, with whom Bradley makes a revolving facet of the de Luces' lives. The colloquialisms of mid-century English villagers (and the comparison of speech to the well-educated de Luces) is simply delightful and adds to the whimsical feel of the novels.  This whimsical feel clashes fantastically with the often brutal crimes that the novels center around.  The crimes' perpetrators sometimes have a near senseless reason at the end, giving the novels a growing sense of 'times-are-changing'.  The straightforward dialogue is reminiscent of the "Golden-Age" of crime novels, reminding the reader of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

Courtesy of
These are not award-winning novels.  Instead, they are colorfully crafted stories about a family barely hanging on and a little girl whose wits and intellect bring not only justice for the village but also a sense of strength in her family.  The solving of the crimes is fun and the stories that Bradley weaves are contorted and surprising.  However, the real stories are about the de Luces. The reader cannot help but be intrigued by the de Luces and their history, which pops up often throughout the series; the falling apart of what was once a great family is morbidly fascinating.  Her father is a fallen, depressed man, who cannot (perhaps will not) get over his beloved wife's death.  The mystery of Flavia's mother is a constant theme throughout, culminating in the VERY revealing, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.  In spite of her brash independence, time and time again, Flavia is saved by her sisters, who seem to hate her, but, as Flavia discovers, love her fiercely.   They appear to be worlds away from each other, separated by their grief, their secret hopes, and their vastly differing personalities.  Yet, in the darkest and most desperate times in the books, the de Luce clan fiercely defend each other and are each other's greatest protectors.  The novels illustrate that sometimes, the differences in one's family does not matter; what matters is the undying love, respect, and admiration that binds the family together and does not falter in the face of danger or loss.