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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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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