An Ocean Apart

Is it wrong that I’ve left some of the Dear Canada books until now because they’re…on the boring side?

An Ocean Apart: The Gold Mountain Diary of Chin Mei-Ling, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1922, Gillian Chan, 2004.

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I think I’ve recapped most of the interesting ones, so I have to say that some of the others—at least in my faded recollection—can be a little dull. This is one of them. I know I’ve read it, and I didn’t outright hate it…but it’s one of those books that I think passed over my brain and then out without ever making any sort of actual impact.

Already it’s a little surprising, because Mei is our Chinese-born protagonist, who came to Canada with her father during a time when it was extremely uncommon that a girl would do so. Her mother and brother are back in China with the rest of their extended family, suffering greatly, while Mei and her father are suffering in Canada in the effort to bring them over. Already we’re not off to a start that would make me think this is going to be a heartwarming, life-affirming story.

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The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow

Well, here we are again. With a book that I’m not totally convinced about, but we’re coming to the end of these books (amazingly!) so I had better get this one out of the way.

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, A Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864, Ann Turner, 1999.

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Ann Rinaldi’s turn at this (My Heart Is On The Ground) was absolutely dismal. This one is better, but I couldn’t find a review or critique written by an actual native person, so I can’t speak to anything regarding the actual facts about the Navajo experience from their perspective. Could be completely off-base! I have no idea!

Since our protagonist, Sarah Nita, isn’t/wasn’t literate, the gimmick behind this book is that it’s the transcription of her stories by her granddaughter, who was sent to a white school. (So there you go. She doesn’t die!) It’s always interesting to see the different devices they come up with for books written by illiterate protagonists—I think the Royal Diaries book Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets uses the idea that she’s making line drawings on birch skin. Is this better? Yes, but it certainly doesn’t read like “memory,” it reads exactly like any other DA novel, except with “stories” instead of dates. Maybe I’m just being unnecessarily picky! I don’t know. (90% of this blog is just me going “I don’t know.”)

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The Game of Silence

Look! We’re back again with Omakayas for the second edition, Darker and Worse. It’s great, but I’m not going to lie: if Birchbark House was depressing to you, you’re probably not going to like this.

The Game of Silence, Louise Erdrich, 2005.

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The very, very, very first chapter of this book, before we get into anything, straight-up tells you it’s going to be a bad time. A group of ragged, starving people reach Omakayas’s family’s settlement—their leader is Miskobines, the uncle of Fishtail—a family friend. They’re all starving, and Omakayas’s mother takes a baby that no one could identify but the starving people brought with them, who becomes Omakayas’s new little brother, Bizheens. She gains a cousin, too, one of the quiet and angry-looking boys who goes to live with her other cousins.

There’s a game the adults play with the children when they need them to be quiet—the adults all contribute a gift to a pile, and the children stay silent as long as the adults are talking, and the one who lasts without talking the longest gets to pick first from the pile of presents. They know something is terribly wrong when it’s a miraculous pile of gifts. Turns out what the adults are talking about is how the white men are moving in and forcing the Ojibwe to leave their ancestral homeland and move west. They agree to send scouts to see what’s happened—maybe there’s been a treaty dispute or an Ojibwe killed a white man and this is retribution. Fishtail agrees to go out, as do a couple of other men, and Angeline (Omakayas’s very beautiful older sister) sends Fishtail off that summer and no one knows exactly what will happen when they come back. Omakayas is afraid they’re going to be forced to leave the only home she’s ever known, and even knowing that she won’t be separated from her family isn’t enough to soothe her fear.

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A Rebel’s Daughter

I didn’t discover Dear Canada until I was eighteen and had moved there on a permanent basis, and when I found them by poking through my local library, I had a total lightbulb moment. “A-ha! Look! MORE of these awesome books to read!” and I plowed through a bunch of them right away. This one I skipped for a long while, though, because I thought it looked boring, but that was such a mistake because it’s great.

A Rebel’s Daughter: The 1837 Rebellion Diary of Arabella Stevenson, Toronto, Upper Canada, 1837, Janet Lunn, 2006.

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Now, I’ll excuse the fact that my library copy of this book smells weirdly like fried foods and point out that Janet Lunn is an excellently well-regarded writer for Canadian children and a damn treasure to Canada. You know she wrote this nine years ago at the age of 78? And it’s as interesting and enchanting—in fact, far more so—than plenty of kids’ and YA fiction written by much younger authors with fancy degrees. Also I feel a particular love for her because she came to Canada like I did at 18 to go to university, and stayed and stayed and stayed, and she lived in Prince Edward County, which is very close to where I used to live. She’s awesome.

This book is great! My only real quibble with it is that the plot has a lot of echoes of A Little Princess, but I’ll let that pass since it’s a classic of children’s literature and this is more of an homage than anything else. This book does a fantastic job of displaying something rarely seen in children’s lit, too—a mother who is completely uninterested and indifferent to her daughter’s well-being, to the point where she literally gives a servant her daughter’s bed. Most of the time in kids’ books that need a semi-independent protagonist, the parents are either absent from the picture entirely, or benevolent in their allowance of their kids’ roaming habits. Arabella’s mother, by contrast, is almost a villainous character in her utter neglect. It’s so, so, so well done and you almost never see it in books like this.

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