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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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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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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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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Sink and Destroy

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.

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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!

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A Desperate Road To Freedom

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.

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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.

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A Sea of Sorrows

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.

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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.

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