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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Exiles from the War

This is honest-to-goodness one of my favourite books in the entire Dear Canada/Dear America series. Jean Little, as I have mentioned before at length, is an absolute national treasure, and writes so beautifully with so much feeling and attention to detail, and nothing ever comes across as deliberately tugging on the heartstrings or using anything as a teaching moment. I think this one is the crown jewel of all her books in the Dear Canada collection, possibly because it’s drawing on her own experience of growing up during the Second World War. It’s wonderful.

Exiles from the War: The War Guests Diary of Charlotte Mary Twiss, Guelph, Ontario, 1940, Jean Little, 2010.

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You know, to start with, the whole concept of war guest children is viscerally upsetting, and barely covered but at all in American history curriculums. I think the only place I ever encountered it as a kid was in the American Girl Molly books, which was a pretty milquetoast version. And then in university I did a major term paper on perceptions and memory among children who were sent away from London during the Blitz, and read Goodnight Mister Tom (among others), and cried and cried and cried. It was hard enough for kids who were sent away to the English countryside, but I cannot even imagine being sent to another country. The entire concept is deeply upsetting for everyone involved: the parents who are sending their children away in the hopes it will protect them; the kids who have to leave their homes for new ones for an indeterminate length of time; the families who are taking in total strangers.

The British My Story series has a book from the point of view of a girl sent to the countryside, but Exiles from the War opts to use a Canadian protagonist—which I think is a very interesting way to look at it. Charlotte, our protagonist, lives with her parents and elder sister Eleanor in Guelph, while her older brother George has gone to work at a farm, when she learns that her parents have applied for a War Guest child—and hopefully a girl around her own age, so the girl will have some company. Before this, the war seems fairly distant—dramatic, of course, and scary and exciting—but ultimately something that’s happening a long, long way away.

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No Safe Harbour

I cannot BELIEVE it has taken me this long to get to this book! This is legit an excellent book, and not “excellent for 12-year-olds” but an actual good book in its very own right. Please read it.

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No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917, Julia Lawson, 2006.

Now this is special in a few ways—first of all, today, December sixth, is the 99th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is why I chose today to run this book! If you’re not familiar with it, go read my article that ran on The Toast about it a few years back. Secondly, this is my one hundredth book review and I wanted to pick a book I really loved. Thirdly, when I did my Master’s degree my focus was the First World War in the Maritimes, so I did tons and tons of reading about the Explosion, so this book has a lot of meaning for me. What a great day for a great book!

One of the things I love about this book is that like so many Dear Canada books, it absolutely does not have a particularly happy ending. (This isn’t really a spoiler, the Explosion happens like a third of the way into the book and it’s in the damn title, so there.) Charlotte doesn’t miraculously come through the disaster with all of her family intact, but it’s not at all contrived or tearjerky. And secondly—the diary format works amazingly well here. Last week I reviewed a rebooted Dear America on the San Francisco earthquake, which on the surface had a lot of similarities to this one—young woman in an urban area faces family difficulties that are thrown into explicit focus after a major disaster strikes her city, and drama follows it. But while A City Tossed and Broken seemed to focus on the drama, No Safe Harbour is allllllll about how the Explosion has made such an enormous impact on everyone’s life that it’s impossible to discard. Now let’s learn.

Charlotte, who is twelve, is just-barely-the-youngest of five kids—her eldest brother Luke is fighting in France, her next-up sister Edith finished with school and working, bratty teenage sister Ruth in high school, and Charlotte’s slightly-elder twin brother, Duncan. Her father is a dock worker in Halifax, and they live quite happily, although not wealthily, in the north end of Halifax.

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Banished from Our Home

I feel compelled to start off every single Dear Canada review with “my God, this book is super depressing.” This one is no different, because of course not. Probably because it’s about the Acadian Expulsion, one of the most depressing events in Canadian history, and doesn’t improve from there.

Banished from Our Home: The Acadian Diary of Angélique Richard, Grand-Pré, Acadia, 1755, Sharon Stewart, 2004.

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I went to graduate school in New Brunswick, and consequently learned a fair bit about the Acadians, but I am in no way an expert in this part of history (other than, as I mentioned, “depressing.”) And if you are very unlucky and get stuck with an Acadian person obsessed with the past, they will be happy to tell you all about the Expulsion, on and on and on in unending, depressing detail, the likes of which would make a history teacher thrill to hear. But luckily you don’t need to need any background to enjoy (“enjoy”) this story!

Angélique is one of eight children on a farm in Grand-Pre, where her family has lived for many years, and political pressure is making things difficult for everyone. One of her older brothers, Victor, is joining up with the rebels who are fighting against the British, which puts him and the rest of their family in grave danger. (At this point, Britain had conquered France and won Acadia, which means they were trying to anglicize the area and tamp down pro-French sentiment in the countryside. I know this is badly, badly simplified, please do not comment or email me to give me a history of the Acadians, I know.)

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Graves of Ice

I’ve had this blog for two years and I haven’t even touched a book out of this series yet! What’s wrong with me? (I was convinced these books are boring, that’s what.)

Graves Of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition, George Chambers, The Northwest Passage, 1845¸John Wilson, 2014.

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Side note: if you can get through this whole review without getting Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage stuck in your head, you’re a better person than I am. I spent two days reading this book and fully ¾ of that time I spent trying to remember the words to the world’s most mournful song after The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which coincidentally is also about shipwrecks.

Anyway, I have been avoiding the I Am Canada series because I was convinced they were boring, but this one was not! And to be honest the only reason I picked it is because it’s actually already out of date. The two ships involved, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have been located in the Arctic (the Terror just this year!), exactly where Inuit hunters had been telling the idiot white people to go and look for them. (This is true, by the way.) So while the expedition was lost in the sense that everyone died, the remains of their ships and many of the crew members have been located. So now I suppose it’s the “doomed” Franklin Expedition? Is that better?

Also I have to note here as well that I feel like Terror is a horrible name for a ship bound to be on an expedition to a terrifying land where there’s every chance that everyone will die. I wouldn’t get on it.

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