Why do I keep torturing myself with books about trains? Also, the girl on the painting in the cover of this book bears a striking resemblance to Ben Franklin, which is unfortunate. I think it’s the bow.
A Ribbon Of Shining Steel: The Railway Diary of Kate Cameron, Yale, British Columbia, 1882, Julie Lawson, 2002.
Julie Lawson is a terrific author. She’s written some really great books for kids and young adults. But this book has exactly the same problem as last week’s book, which is that railroads are really freaking boring and not even stellar authors can make them interesting to me. However, the saving grace in this book is that Lawson has created a really interesting character in Kate, and a really interesting family and background to go along with her. (If you’re wondering, Yale is a very small town today a few hours into the interior of BC, and if Google is anything to go by, it’s spectacularly beautiful mountain country.)
One of the main reasons I like Kate in this book so much is that she’s a very active and energetic girl, but Lawson studiously avoids the very common trap of “My young female character has to be relatable to girls today, so she’ll just be a tomboy who hates sewing and other feminine chores and is just like one of the boys, done.” Kate likes to be outdoors with her brothers, but she also wants to be an accomplished young lady and goes through a lot of struggle and misery trying to achieve that vaunted status. But while in lots of terrible books, the girls go to a lot of trouble to denounce femininity, Kate wants to be ladylike but also to have adventures. It’s a really nice balance.
Kate lives with her family in Yale—two older brothers, mother, and father who is an engineer with the railroad—after moving there from Ontario two years before. They live near the Accident Hospital (what a terrific name) and generally lead a pretty unassuming middle-class life. Kate’s biggest problem is that her best friend lives on a farm too far away for frequent visits, and she doesn’t have another ready friend to hand. The most exciting thing happening is a visit from Princess Louise and the Governor-General, and Kate manages to befriend one of her classmates in the runup to the princess’s visit. They try to find something suitable for a gift for a princess, and Kate decides to go hunting for some jade. While they’re hunting around, they end up near the Chinese camp, and Anne freaks out. Apparently she’s deeply afraid of Chinese, which sets up a nice little Teachable Moment about how racism is bad and Chinese people are just the same as anyone else.
Now, while I get the point of this, I think it’s a bit overdone. Now, it would be more realistic to have a book that portrayed a middle-class white family as being as racist as was typical for the time period (i.e., high-minded, but probably a pretty far cry from what we today call “liberal” or “open-minded”), but I get why a kids’ book is probably not the right place to do that. But I do wonder if this eventually contributes to an idea that Canada has always been as open-minded and welcoming as they portray themselves. (But, on the other hand, other books in the same damn series belie that—namely, two different books about Canadian internment camps and one about a Chinese girl living in Vancouver at the turn of the century. They paint a pretty bleak picture of Canada, really.)
Anyway, Louise’s visit is a bust since she doesn’t even come to Yale, and Kate sulks around for a bit. Kate seems to be suffering from an acute case of Growing-Up-it is, and mopes around all autumn about having arguments with her friend, being ill with a case of whooping cough, and hoping that her parents aren’t going to send her away to a girls’ school in Victoria. While she’s recovering from whooping cough, one of their neighbours stops by and tells them about his plans to start a lending library and asks for any old books or magazines they can lend, and Kate gets so excited that she gives him a huge collection of her family’s Girls’ Own Papers and Boys’ Own Papers that their grandmother sends. (This is foreshadowing.)
Kate goes for a visit to her friend Rachel’s farm, and when she comes back her friend Anne is pissy with her—and Kate finds out that her brother Toby committed probably the worst act of diary-related violation in the entire Western canon because he took Kate’s diary to school and read it aloud in the schoolyard. Including the parts where Kate said not-so-charitable things about Anne. Oh god, it’s SO AWFUL. He does it because he’s upset with Kate for giving away his Boys’ Own collection, but still.
For the rest of November and December, Kate is glum and bored with very normal 12-year-old girl problems: she hates school, she doesn’t like to clean, she likes going to the newspaper office but her mother gets after her for getting ink all over herself, she’s afraid of the school exams, and the worst thing of all is that she cracks a tooth on the silver charm in the plum pudding. So for two full weeks after Christmas she suffers from a horrible toothache. Two weeks! I had a pain in my tooth for two days last year and I was a miserable, angry beast! I can’t imagine going around with a cracked tooth for two weeks. Normally they would wait for the traveling dentist, but instead Kate’s father takes her to New Westminster to visit the dentist there, and the doctor has to put her under with ether to finish yanking her tooth out. It’s SO grisly and awful and the worst part is that it’s totally true and realistic and probably a bit sanitized from what dentist’s visits in 1882 were like.
All that winter, the Chinese workers continue to die from scurvy and accidents, but they’re not allowed to go to the whites-only Accident Hospital. Kate turns thirteen and learns about the Facts of Life from her mother, which she is extremely dismayed to find (understandably), and reflects a bit on comedy pieces about “what it means to be a lady” in the local newspaper. I really like this method of using bits from newspapers to give a bit of background to things, but this is the only Dear Canada book that does it. Anyway, Kate also learns that her mother is pregnant again, and while she’s excited, she’s also a little afraid—for her mother, and for the fact that she won’t be the youngest any more and won’t be the only girl in the family.
In the spring there’s a rash of chicken thefts, and it turns out to be a destitute Chinese worker. But when the judgment comes down, Kate notes that he receives four years in prison, while a man who stabbed another man gets only three years. “There are so many things I do not understand about the world….I do not see any justice in these sentences. Especially after I learned that the stabber had been a soldier in the British Service and served under Justice Crease’s brother. Does that have anything to do with the sentence? And then there is the fact that the chicken thief is Chinese. Does that have anything to do with the sentence?” She fights with Anne, who thinks that the thief’s sentence is totally fair, but then Anne tells her she was just playing devil’s advocate. (The worst position in any argument!)
In the summer, Kate’s brother tells her that he’s going to go away to Victoria to go to high school, and Kate gets upset that things are changing too quickly—new baby, older brother going away, fighting with friends, and so on. Before Andrew goes, though, he takes her and Toby on a camping trip in July. When she wakes up the next morning her brothers are gone, and the winds have changed direction so the summer brushfires creep close to their campsite, and Kate starts fleeing and gets completely lost. She makes her way back to the village, and is just in time for an enormous explosion when the Powder Works blow up. Kate finds one of the little girls from her school racing back into her house to find a kitten, and Kate drags her back out much to the extreme gratitude of the girls’ parents. Her brothers apologize and apologize, and Kate thinks it’s funny that everyone is calling her such a heroine when she really didn’t think she did anything special or anything that anyone else wouldn’t do.
In August, Kate and Toby go with their oldest brother to take him to high school in Victoria. While she’s there, Kate meets up with her friend Rachel, who’s been going to school at a girls’ college there, only to find that Rachel has changed a lot and become interested in boys and dances and clothes and very little else. Kate thinks that as much as she liked Rachel before, they seem to have drifted apart, but that’s okay—Kate has new friends, a new sibling to look forward to, and she’s OK with that.
In the epilogue, Kate goes to high school and does become a reporter, marries an Englishman, and lives in England for several years before returning to Canada after the outbreak of war with her sons.
Rating: B-. I feel bad about giving this a less-than-stellar review, because it’s really well-written and I love Kate as a character and the way a lot of issues are addressed. But I stand by my idea that trains are boring, and I do think the way racism is handled in this book is a bit heavy-handed. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s one of the more boring DC books. Maybe it’s just that I think trains are super boring.