Summary: Aunt Frieda’s announcement that she’s coming to stay with Ben, his three sisters and his mother takes them all by surprise. It’s been years since Aunt Frieda’s nephew (Ben’s father) died, and no one knows exactly why she would want to visit now. But once they become accustomed to her, Aunt Frieda’s presence and easy nature begins to have subtle and positive effects on all of them. At a time when Ben is questioning what he knows because of his ongoing grief over the death of his father and the threat of physical violence at school, Aunt Frieda connects by telling him her own stories of hardship and pain. In the end, it’s up to Ben whether to fight back, or to choose another way.
Number of Pages: 216
Age Range: 14-16
Review: Since his father died, Ben has been the only male in female-dominated household. Outnumbered four to one, Ben isn’t exactly enthusiastic about increasing the disparity with his Aunt Frieda’s visit. Though she is an older relative he doesn’t know much about, Aunt Frieda becomes a friend who challenges him to consider his actions and not fall into the trap of hatred when things start going badly at school and one of his best friends runs away.
Ben is a complex character. While it’s clear he loves his mother and sisters, it’s also clear that having to live without his father has affected his life. While his passion for dance has been embraced by his family, school is another matter, and I can’t help but wonder if his father had been around whether he would have learned how to fit in better. At least then he might have also had someone better equipped to help him deal with potential self-esteem issues.
But the great thing about Ben is that while he struggles, he shows a strength of character his own mother doesn’t believe he has. Thankfully Aunt Frieda does come to visit, because she and Ben seem to be two peas in a pod who intuitively understand each other. It’s a beautiful relationship across the generations, and Aunt Frieda seems to come at a moment when everyone needs her most.
I love how Ben ends up rejecting a life ruled by pain and anger as a man of stone like the men in Aunt Frieda’s stories. I also enjoyed Ben’s introspective nature and how he can see others giving into something he refuses to choose. It’s powerful and thought-provoking, and I had several memorable quotes due to the nature of the book.
My favourite part of Friesen’s story is how she uses dance as a metaphor for being yourself. As a child, Ben dances with abandon. He’s naturally talented, he’s passionate, and he doesn’t care what others think. Once the teen years strike though and the other kids start making fun of him, he hides his love of dance away and still has to put up with being called Ballerina Boy. But while he pushes his true nature down, there are glorious moments when it breaks free. When he’s on his own and then with Aunt Frieda, dancing is an integral part of who he is. And eventually, he learns to embrace his true self.
Men of Stone has a wonderful voice and explores a family’s journey though grief with the help of a relative who knows what pain truly is. I loved it.
“Horrible Questions. But more horrible still was the silence afterward. As unprepared as we were for our dad to die, we were just as unprepared to discover that our mother didn’t control the universe.” – Ben from Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen, page 41
“I spent the rest of the evening in my room actually doing homework, but I kept thinking about Stan. Then I got to thinking about how Aunt Frieda’s husband had been taken away, and I wondered, what made somebody turn to stone? I flicked through my history book and looked at the pictures of all the statues of men on horseback, men holding rifles, men sitting on rock-slab chairs looking down from great heights. Great men … war heroes. What made a man a hero? Did all heroes end up carved out of great blocks of stone?” – Ben from Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen, page 97
“I could relate. All alone in a house full of people. Joni probably felt that way too. Even Mom. Ever since Dad died, it was as if a big hold had been blown into the side of our house, and nobody could figure out how to fill it. I wondered if Aunt Frieda had felt that way when they’d taken Henry away.” – Ben from Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen, page 105
“The ambulance guys poked and prodded, lifting limbs and pressing to see where I was damaged. I tried to float away. What a disappointment my body was – so bloody fragile. I couldn’t help thinking how invincible I felt when I was dancing. How every part of me responded to my orders – even as I ached with exhaustion. Now everything was spinning out of control, beyond my reach. I closed my eyes, willed the blackness to come.” – Ben from Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen, page 142
“‘What I’m saying is that you must choose what defines who you are. The truth of who one is is complex – it is not merely good of simply bad. I believe that truth is the image of God in which we were created, but it has taken me a lifetime of experiences and choices to discover this. You have to find your own way. Don’t let yourself be limited by the hatred you feel. Don’t let it stop your search.'” – Aunt Frieda talking to Ben from Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen, page 175
“‘A heart full of hatred is numb. But a broken heart is felt right to the quick. And a broken heat can be mended.'” – Aunt Frieda talking to Ben from Men of Stone by Gayle Forman, page 183
“‘Think about it. In every society at every point in history there have been wars. It’s always been that way, probably always will be. People fight – over land, over religion … over a girl. And it’s not who’s right – if anyone. It’s usually about strength. Strong guy, army, country rolls over the weak.’
‘That’s why it never ends. There’s always somebody a little stronger. Refusing to fight means that you’re saying the fighting ends here. Strength is not truth.'” – Conversation between Matt and Ben about the true motivation behind war from Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen, page 197
Men of Stone by Gayle Friesen is published by Kids Can Press, (2000).