The Porcupine Year

We’re back in the Birchbark House for the third installment!

The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich, 2008.

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OK, so The Game of Silence was pretty depressing, let’s see if the third book will be any better. At this point, Omakayas is twelve and her family has moved from their original home, and it looks like things might be stabilizing a bit. But clearly not all that much, because as we open Omakayas and her younger brother Pinch are in the process of being washed away in a canoe down some rapids. But they end up lost and alone further down the river without a good idea of how to get home.

They find a baby porcupine which looks delicious, but in the process of hunting it, Pinch gets quilled badly in the face—but instead of eating it, Pinch vows to spare the porcupine’s life. So even though Omakayas would rather not, they bring it with them to camp and then head out the next morning, porcupine riding comfortably on Quill’s head. The rapids that they lived through are so dramatic and awful that they’re sure that a protector spirit helped them through it, and Omakayas sacrifices her red beads that her grandmother gave her in thanks.

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Not a Nickel to Spare

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve read this book? So many! I don’t even like it all that much, to be honest. I just keep reading it and reading it in an effort to recap it and somehow never get up the energy to do so. I own this book and it’s taken me forever to get around to it, which should tell you just how much I don’t enjoy it.

Not A Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen, Toronto, Ontario, 1932, Perry Nodelman, 2007.

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Here’s the thing: this is overall a really well-written book, and Nodelman is a professor of children’s literature and the editor of Canadian Children’s Literature, and has written textbooks on the subject. There are parts of this book that I adore—it’s a terrifically evocative picture of Toronto during a certain place and time. But (and you knew there was a “but” in there because I can’t unequivocally like anything ever)…something about it just does not work for me. Part of it is because so much of the book is focused on Sally’s cousin Benny—overwhelmingly so, to the point where it really seems like he just wanted to write a book about Benny and the Christie Pits riots but got roped into writing this instead. And part of it is because it doesn’t ring true as a realistic depiction of a preteen girl. I don’t think it’s because he’s a man, since I think any good writer is capable of writing a persuasive character regardless of whether they can personally identify with them, but it seems like it’s because he just was more interested in writing about Benny!

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Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets

I can’t believe we’re almost done with the Royal Diaries as well! Wow, time is flying by.

Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts-Rhode Island, 1653, Patricia Clark-Smith, 2003.

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Now, here is something interesting. This is the only Royal Diaries book that closely intersects with a regular Dear America book (that being A Journey To The New World, which takes place in 1620-1621, and mentions a number of the same people). I know that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on anything, but I find it very interesting that as their pick for a North American native royal, they chose one whose territory already intersected with the very, very first Dear America book! Interesting, no? (You can say no, and I will understand.) At any rate, it’s a little bit difficult to find a leader in that vein (although they did do Anacaona for Haiti, and Kaiulani for Hawaii, but both of those are out of the realm that people usually consider “Native American princesses”) without doing Pocahontas, which I’m sure would have been a problem given the movie had come out just a couple of years before and also the story of Pocahontas is such well-travelled territory. (Although that didn’t stop them from doing, say, Cleopatra!) Anyway, you know who would have been an interesting choice? Nonhelema, the Shawnee chief who played a role in the American Revolution. I digress already.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult for authors who are dealing with illiterate protagonists in a diary-based novel series to come up with a way for them to “write their thoughts,” so the concept we’re dealing with here is twofold: Weetamoo occasionally will draw small sketches of her thoughts on birchbark, and these sketches are a way for her to “think about things.” On the one hand, it’s an interesting way to sort of peep into the mind, but on the other hand, is it all that effective? Let’s read and see.

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Defend or Die

I don’t know what I expected here, but even if I had bothered myself to read the back cover I’m not sure it would have helped me. This is a book about a prison camp! Prison camp! And oh my god, so gory. It’s good, don’t worry, but…maybe don’t read this around a mealtime.

Defend Or Die: The Siege of Hong Kong, Jack Finnigan, Hong Kong, 1941¸Gillian Chan, 2015.

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I need to stop thinking that the I Am Canada books are all boring, because this was a lot of things, but boring is not on that list. Gripping, yes. Disgusting, yes (in places). Gory, oh my lands, yes. Incredibly sad, yes. But boring, not so much. I mean, you’d probably get more out of this book if you had a passing familiarity with the role Hong Kong played during the Second World War, but hey, even if you don’t, still good!

If you happen to have a 12-year-old boy handy who’s a reluctant reader but easily lured by some gory war stories, this is the book you’ll want to give him. As I mentioned, not a great idea if you have a weak stomach, or you just don’t want to read about lots and lots and lots of violence. And death. And violent death. This is going to be your only warning.

This is one of those books telling one story broken up into two chunks—current, and how we got here. Jack is in a prison camp on Hong Kong Island by January of 1942, and they’re already being starved and forced to go out on work parties and generally miserable. Then we flash back to October of the previous year when Jack is shipping out from his home in Toronto after finishing his basic training. And apparently there’s some bad blood there between him and his girlfriend’s family. I’m sensing a star-crossed-lovers type thing, since his girlfriend Alice is apparently a very sweet girl and Jack beat up her brother at one point. But Alice comes to see him off on the train, but Jack’s brother stops her, and they don’t get to say goodbye to each other after all. This is literally the most cheerful thing that happens in the entire book, so if you want to back out now, this is your warning.

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Kazunomiya

Fun fact: my library copy of this book is bound upside down and backwards, which is not technically a problem, but makes me very uncomfortable when I’m reading what appears to be an upside-down book backwards.

Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan, 1858, Kathryn Lasky, 2004.

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This is a fairly short one (under 130 pages), but Kathryn Lasky is a good enough writer that it doesn’t feel clipped or shortened. One of her particular gifts is a wonderful eye for sensory details and inclusion of colours and scents, which I think is especially lovely here, but good in all of her books, of course. Additionally, traditional Japanese poetry (where the emphasis is on leaving things unsaid and using short phrases) is a plot point in this book, so the trimmed-down narrative style really works here.

Here’s my standard disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Japanese history, but this book takes place in 1858, just a few years after Japan’s reversal of their isolationist policies in 1853, so it’s of course a time of ongoing political and power struggles. Kazunomiya, or Chikako (her nickname), is the younger half-sister of the Emperor, which means she has been betrothed to be married to the prince Arisugawa ever since they were small children and has been brought up to live at court—learning calligraphy, poetry, music, and history.

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