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The French Mathematician (2000) by Tom Petsinis. Berkley Books, New York.

This outstanding work of historical fiction is the story of the short life and accomplishments of the mathematical genius, Evariste Galois, who was born in a suburb of Paris in 1811. Petsinis weaves a highly interesting tale of Galois's early life and schooling as they interacted with French society after the overthrow of Napoleon I. Galois was sent by his parents to a private school in Paris where he was thoroughly bored by the ponderous and rote level of instruction. He was considered a dunce by the instructors and his fellow students. But his interest in schooling changed when he entered Monsieur Vernier's mathematics class at the age of fifteen. There, his mind and imagination were stirred by Euclidian geometry and algebra because of his inherent affinity for these subjects and the prodding of a great teacher. Galois was suspicious of receiving any help from Vernier but this teacher kept giving it in the form of additional books to read on geometry and algebra, encouragement and direction, and a respect for this young man's abilities. Meanwhile, in the midst of the awakening of his mathematical abilities, Galois learned that his father (the director of a private boarding school in Bourg-la-Reine) was being pressured by anti-Republican groups to resign from his position. Both his father and mother were constantly berating him to improve his grades and to abandon his desire to become a mathematician. Instead, Galois's father wanted him to obtain his college degree and eventually become the next director of the boarding school. These family pressures and the effects of a revolutionary society constantly affected Galois's attitudes about his parents and French society. But they did not deter him from achieving his goal of mathematical preeminence.

The intensity of Galois' learning of mathematics is shown by his response to the books which his teacher (Vernier) gave him to read: ". . .I have never read like that before: More than just intense reading, each page was an experience, a remembrance, a reacquaintance with things long known. I grasped the abstract language of algebra intuitively, with a sixth sense, as though it were a scent or a melody or an object of one's passion. Has anyone read like that? A reading where the reader and the text interact, where the reader becomes the text? A few students are immersed in translations of Walter Scott's adventure novels; caught up in another world, they read voraciously, identifying with the heroes. But identification is one thing -- it happens all the time in one form or another -- I am talking about becoming the actual text, the very symbols of algebra." (p. 54). He expressed this enthusiasm through his attempts to solve the quintic equation, the "general equation to the power of five." (p. 62). Although he was not successful in solving it, he developed a logical series of mathematical steps, and was able to identify the error which prevented a solution to the quintic equation.

The next phase in Galois's schooling occurred when he was introduced to a new teacher of mathematics, Monsieur Louis Richard, who recognized his brilliance and stimulated his pupil to study mathematics more systematically. On the first day of class, Richard asked each student why they were there. Galois responded, "To solve the quintic." (p. 136). The other students were ready to laugh at Galois and expected the teacher to ridicule him. But instead, Richard said, ". . .I cannot convey the spirit of this inquiry any better than to repeat Galois's answer: 'to solve the quintic.'" (p. 137). Unfortunately, Galois's brilliance was not recognized by the French Polytechnic Institute since he was twice rejected for admission to this prestigious school. He died in 1832 at the young age of 21; his reputation as a mathematical giant in algebra was finally recognized when his manuscripts were published in 1846 and 1870. His analyses set the groundwork for Group Theory which is used in such fields as nuclear physics and genetic engineering.

This tragic story can provide teachers and parents of the gifted with some useful lessons. First, the teacher has a serious obligation to society to identify promising students and to provide them with the highest levels of intellectual stimulation. Second, the educational institutions of a nation must be sensitive to recognizing and serving outstanding talent. (In Galois's case, the French educational institutions acted against his development as a mathematician.) Third, parents must provide as much assistance as they can possibly give in furthering the educational development of their gifted children. The author of The French Mathematician, Tom Petsinis, has done an outstanding job of weaving technical information about Galois's mathematical achievements with the emotional and cultural aspects of his life and times.

A second work of historical fiction that we highly recommend is The Last Station by Jay Parini (1990, Henry Holt and Company). The author tells the story of the last years of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the giant of Russian literature. Parini has done an exceptional job of presenting the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Russia in the early 1900's. Each chapter presents the perspective of a different individual regarding Tolstoy's character and actions, so that the reader gains an encompassing picture of his life as viewed by different personalities and relationships. First, his wife, Sofya Andreyevna, reminiscences about how she helped him prepare the manuscript for War and Peace (1865-69) when they were much younger. Next, there is Tolstoy's twenty-four year old private secretary, Bulgakov, who has been instructed to spy on Tolstoy and report everything to Chertkov. And then, there are chapters in which Tolstoy gives his ideas on religion, the soul, family affairs, his books, the land of Russia, and the Russian peasants. He also writes letters to George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, and his wife. The author of this novel, Jay Parini, intersperses several of his own poems throughout the book that provide a lyrical atmosphere to this story. By reading The Last Station, gifted students can learn about the ideas and times of a great humanist who was concerned with the welfare of his downtrodden countrymen and the suffering of all people who live under tyranny. They should read Parini's book in conjunction with War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1875-77) to learn about these masterpieces that were created by a religious humanist of the highest order.


New and Selected Poems (1992) by Mary Oliver. Beacon Press, Boston.

Mary Oliver (1935- ) follows the tradition of three of our nation's greatest nature writers -- Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson and Annie Dillard. Like these individuals, she is a sensitive observer of nature and a great teacher of her craft. Her enthusiasm for poetry and nature is shown throughout this book where she writes about rain, blueberries, goldenrod, the waterfall, peonies, winter, humpbacks, crows, and many other topics. What is particularly wonderful about her poetry is its clarity and richness of voice. As a teacher of poetry, Oliver has published two excellent books: Rules for the Dance (1998, Houghton Mifflin Co.) which clearly describes the technical features of rhythm and rhyming, and A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (1994, Harcourt, Brace & Co.) which also covers specific topics such as sound, the line, and diction, tone and voice. Gifted students interested in poetry and nature will find Mary Oliver's books to be a pleasure to read.


Anna Akhmatova: Russian Poetess of the 20th Century by Michael E. Walters Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools

"My account's not settled/ With fire/ With wind, with water . . ./ So that in light sleep/ Suddenly, gates open up/ And I go out/ Toward the Morning Star." From Secrets of the Trade by Anna Akhmatova. In Poem Without a Hero and Selected Poems (p. 171, 1989, Oberlin College Press).

The ability to use personal memory to create insights for artistic endeavors and historical understanding is one of the characteristics of giftedness. Poetry has always been a format for constructing personal memory that is blended with national and religious identity. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is a representative of this function of giftedness and creativity. She started writing highly acclaimed poetry as a teenager and experienced and wrote about the major events of the 20th century (war, art and politics). Her childhood occurred during the early years of the 20th century where she grew up as part of the Czarist cultural and social world. Her teenage period was during World War I and the Communist revolution. Early adulthood encompassed the oppression and tyranny of Joseph Stalin. The years of middle age occurred in World War II, and her final years paralleled the end of Stalin's terror and the decline of Communism in Russia.

Akhmatova wrote two epic poems that describe human beings' agony and personal endurance. Her first one is Requiem which was written during the early 1930's and late 1940's. Besides many personal friends, she saw her own immediate family being victimized by the Stalinist tyranny. One of her closest friends and colleagues was the Russian Jewish poet, Osip Mandelstam. She watched him disappear into the Gulag Archipelago of Stalin's concentration camps. Her own son was also a victim of Communist persecution who was imprisoned merely for being the son of Akhmatova's first husband (executed in 1921 as a "counter-revolutionary"). She spent seventeen months standing outside a prison awaiting news concerning her son. He was finally exiled to Siberia and was one of the lucky few to survive this dark period of national persecution. Akhmatova's poem, Requiem, was an attempt to keep the memory alive for persons that the Stalinist regime was seeking to remove from history. This poem became part of the resistance against Stalinism aimed at crushing the human spirit.

The second epic poem is Poem Without A Hero which was written during the siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) by Nazi Germany in 1941. Although she opposed the Stalinist regime, she was a patriotic Russian who did not want her nation to become part of another evil regime, Nazism. The siege of Leningrad was among the greatest battles of World War II, and was a test of the Russian people's determination to oppose Nazism. Her poem captures the nobility of their suffering and endurance.

Gifted students will benefit from studying her poetry by seeing how it can be used as a "lyrical diary."(Akhmatova, 1989). These poems emphasize the ability to fuse personal and collective suffering that have resulted from war and other calamities. Anna Akhmatova is one of the great poets of the 20th century and an obvious role model for gifted students, especially females. "To give life/ To my miraculous/ Sadness/ You have become/ Memory." From White Flock. In Poem Without a Hero and Selected Poems (p. 55, 1989, Oberlin College Press).

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright by Gifted Education Press, October-November 2000