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.
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.
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.
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.
What the hell, I’ve now read this book twice with every plan of reviewing it, and then it just….fades out of my memory. Why? I enjoyed it! What’s wrong with me?
I Thought My Soul Would Rise And Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865, Joyce Hansen, 1997.
Seriously, I don’t know why I keep thinking I’ve already finished reviewing this book! I have not. And it’s quite good! And on a side note, the audiobook of this is also very good—the reader is excellent. If you can get past the weirdness of having the date and location read to you every thirty seconds, it’s great.
I digress ALREADY. Anyway, this book is very well-written and very touching, and one of the things I enjoy the most about it is that Patsy is disabled, but it’s not the focal point of the book like it is in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. I mean, in fairness, that one was about a girl at a school for the blind, so it was baked right in, but still. Patsy here has a debilitating stutter and a limp, but it’s never the focus—it definitely informs her capabilities and affects her life, but it doesn’t hamper it unduly. It’s well done. Also notable about this book: since it’s about a freed slave, I thought the title was going to refer to her disappointment when freedom didn’t fix everything about her life. It doesn’t—it’s a line from a spiritual and it’s about joy. So there you go.
I almost never review brand-new books, but I just had to make an exception to recommend this one!
Wait For Me¸ Caroline Leech, 2017.
It just came out a few months ago so I won’t do a full-fledged recap with spoilers, but I just could not pass this one up. I blew through it in a weekend because I just could not manage to put it down! Partly because it’s like someone wrote a book to spec for me (it’s my favourite subgenre of People Having Romantical Troubles During Wartime (thanks, Fug Girls!)—People On Opposite Sides of Conflict Falling In Love, which is a surprisingly hard genre to find and even harder to find done well—and I don’t want to think about what this says about my psyche, probably nothing good), and partly because it’s just a ripping good tale. It’s a sparkling example of what I feel there isn’t enough of these days—good old YA historical fiction with a side of romance. No magic required, no Gossip Girl-style intrigues, no dystopian steampunk reimaginings of the period, nothing. I love it. God, if only the world would publish more so I can get my fix!
Lorna, our protagonist, lives on her family farm in Scotland, working away and going to school after both her brothers have gone to war (one on the front lines, one in London). She’s scraping by with her father, the housekeeper, and their Land Girl, when her father applies for and receives a German prisoner of war to help work on the farm. Luckily for everyone, Paul speaks some English, and things go about as you can imagine from there. (Spoiler alert: love story.) I love that this book takes place at the end of the war—there have been about a million and eight books written about the outbreak of the war, the Blitz, the evacuations from London, and so on, but not nearly as many about the dragging end.
I hear you! Believe me, I hear you, and I also think Sunfire is the most hilariously awful crap to grace the pages of “books” in many years. This one promises to be especially bad, since it contains actual, real historical people. Probably depicted poorly, I’ll hazard a guess.
Merrie, Vivian Schurfranz, 1987.
Before you start, “Merrie” is a variant on Mary. If you’re like me and stood there goggling at it going “What the fuck?” for a few minutes. I already don’t have a good feeling about this book. Also, the cover is atrocious—Merrie has some kind of wild cape going on with an oddly-Victorian-looking merlot gown, while there’s two dudes: one wearing a…scarf around his neck and what appears to be blue jeans with one of those blousy pirate shirts? And the other wearing a Pilgrim getup that looks like it was purchased from Crazy Frank’s Halloween House Of Fun. He’s even clutching a buckled hat. Helpful hint: the Pilgrims wore normal clothing for their day, including all the colours, and didn’t wear buckles on their hats.
And starting this book I already don’t think I’m going to like Merrie. The whole premise of this book is that she’s stowed away on the Mayflower to escape an arranged marriage. Except she’s supposed to come from wealth, which means that she would have been brought up with the idea that marriage would not be strictly a love match, and secondly, why the Mayflower of all the godforsaken ships in England? Surely you could find a ship going somewhere warm and not a completely isolated place in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, Merrie is discovered on page six and we’re ready to rock and roll.
I thought this book was going to suck and I was proven horribly, amazingly wrong. Is this going to make me less of a snob about these books? It should!
Sink And Destroy: The Battle of the Atlantic, Bill O’Connell, North Atlantic, 1940, Edward Kay, 2014.
I’m the worst. This is the second I Am Canada book I have read, and I thought they were going to be awful, but I’ve been very favourably impressed by both of them. I should get my act together and read the rest of them now! I will, when I get there, it’s just that I’m so horribly bored by most of the topics that it takes me forever to even crack one open. Anyway, this one is great. But full disclosure, I wrote most of this review while watching Das Boot, because it reminded me how much I liked it, and also because I used to love that movie. That was my favourite movie! What was wrong with me? What 20-year-old girl’s favourite movie is Das Boot? This does not say anything good about my psyche, I’m sure.
Another full disclosure: the first good chunk of this book is pretty dull. It does take a while to get going. There’s this whole boring segment where Billy is fishing away, which is how you know some bad shit is going to go down. Whenever there’s an idyllic family fishing scene you just know people are going to die or have something brutal happen. Anyway, Bill is a poor kid from Iroquois, which is right on the St. Lawrence River, who has two older brothers, a younger brother, and a younger sibling. He works on a merchant ship as a teenager, and there’s several boring pages that more or less just recap the war. Invasions, bombings, blah blah blah. Things finally get going when Bill enlists in the navy, much to his parents’ dismay, and we’re finally off!
I always enjoy a good crossover book! I mean, this isn’t truly a crossover because no such thing exists, but if it did, this would be it. Also, this is just a good book, which helps.
A Desperate Road To Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson, Virginia to Canada West, 1863-1864¸Karleen Bradford, 2009.
For starters, Lawrence Hill, who wrote The Book of Negroes, is one of the consulting authors listed in here, which is a pretty good sign that it’s going to be good. I’ve found that Karleen Bradford’s books have been a little bit hit-or-miss, but overall pretty solid, and if I had to rank them, I’d put this one at the top, even with its issues. Almost a quarter of this book takes place in the States, to start with, which is why I want to classify it as a crossover, if only such a thing existed. I mean, if I had my way the shelves would be jammed with quality historical fiction for kids and we wouldn’t need a crossover, but this is a book I’d like to see available on both sides of the border. So often in the States the story about the Underground Railroad goes “and then they went to Canada, the end,” which is not a particularly satisfying ending! And in Canada the story is usually “they came to Canada, and things were great, the end,” which is also not a particularly true ending. And that’s where this book comes into play.
I always complain that these books about boys are boring and dull, but this one was not. Probably because it’s a Kathryn Lasky book, so it’s going to be a good bit above the general run, but I was still genuinely surprised! Incidentally, this book was rereleased with a new title and cover, and you tell me which one is more engaging.
The Journal of Augustus Pelletier, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804, Kathryn Lasky, 2000.
So, here you go. The initial title looks exactly like every other single My Name Is America book, which is not super thrilling, but the reissue is…it’s a little bit pulp-fiction-y, isn’t it? I’m not an 11-year-old boy so I’m probably not the target audience here, but am I wrong? The expressions on everyone’s faces here are hilarious—grinding fury, complete irritation, and what looks like the guy in the back who may have just heard the world’s most hilarious joke. I don’t know what’s happening here.
Gus here, our teenage protagonist, is preparing to secretly follow the Lewis and Clark expedition in search of a little adventure, and his brilliant plan is to wait until they’re too far along to tell him he has to go back. As stupid of an idea as that is, and believe me it is truly dumb, it is definitely something a teenage boy would come up with. He’s half French and half Omaha, calls himself a half-breed, and speaks French, Omaha, and English, which as you imagine might come in handy. He immediately begins complaining about how slow the whole expedition is going, which is not surprising considering that they’re a good bit more clunky than a single teenage boy and his knapsack.
I wouldn’t say this book is bad, but it’s more or less unrelenting misery right from the word go.
A Sea of Sorrows: The Typhus Epidemic Diary of Johanna Leary, Ireland to Canada East, 1847, Norah McClintock, 2012.
I mean, look at the title, right? Anyway, Norah McClintock actually just passed away in February, and wrote a number of YA mystery/thrillers, like a sort of updated Caroline B. Cooney. (Remember those? Flight #116 Is Down gave me so many nightmares.) This is her only historical fiction book, and while like I said it isn’t bad, it’s definitely not her forte. Now, we can do a Compare-n-Contrast to the truly dreadful So Far From Home by Barry Denenberg, which has the same basic concept—poor Irish girl flees Irish potato famine, finds the New World isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—but thankfully features no weirdly written-out Irish phonetic accents and a minimal reliance on Irish folklore.
I may be the first person to read my library’s copy of this book. It’s in pristine condition.
After the very first line starting off with “fairies and pookas and banshees,” I was deeply afraid we were in for another terrible Funetik Aksent type thing, but we’re OK. Except for the fact that there’s a typo literally on the first page—“bother” for “brother.” Sigh. Anyway, Johanna is on her way to Dublin and then Liverpool and then to Canada in order to leave Ireland, where they’re all starving to death—they being her parents, her older brother Michael, and infant brother Patrick. Her father’s brother Liam is already there, somewhere in what is now Ontario, and although they haven’t heard from him in almost a year, they’re confident he’ll be happy to see them again.
We’re back in the Second World War with another Blitz evacuation novel! I feel like I’ve just done one, but Exiles from the War last month is on the opposite side of the evacuation. I just finished reading (for my own enjoyment, not the blog) The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and while I enjoyed it, it was so reminiscent of Goodnight Mister Tom that at several points I caught myself going “I feel like I’ve read this before.”
My Story: Blitz, A Wartime Girl’s Diary, 1940-41, Vince Cross, 2001.
This is one of those books that isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t knock-your-socks-off amazing. It’s more of a “well, that was interesting, I guess.” I know that doesn’t sound entirely promising, but it’s not that bad! It’s just a little on the bland side. If terrible Dear America and My Story novels are the equivalent of, I don’t know, spoiled fish seasoned with lawn fertilizer, and really outstanding ones are chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream, this is…instant oatmeal. It’s not bad, it’ll feed you when you’re hungry in a pinch, but no one is going to mistake it for haute cuisine. Although no one is going to mistake it for fish food, either, so…win-win?