Behind Enemy Lines

I don’t know where I expected this book to go but this was NOT it.

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Behind Enemy Lines: World War II, Sam Frederiksen, Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1944, Carol Matas, 2012.

I think the entire reason I had no idea what was coming was because the back cover blurb on this book is terrible. Just terrible! Our fearless hero Sam has his plane shot down, and in his effort to get back to England he works with the French Resistance. It does not go well to say the absolute least.

The other thing that’s strange about this series is that some of them are more diary-style (numbered entries, text like “I don’t know what to write” or things like that) and some of them, like this one, are just straight first-person recounting that happen to have a date at the beginning of the chapter to orient the reader. Neither one is better, it’s just a little bit odd for me, the reader. (Or possibly it doesn’t bother normal people and it just bothers me, the reader reading these things for detail and comparing and contrasting them to other books in the same and sibling series.)

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Prisoner of Dieppe

I don’t know how I feel about this book. Hugh Brewster is an excellent writer, but the choice of material is slightly odd. Why are there two I Am Canada books that deal with Canadian soldiers being captured as POWs—this one, and Behind Enemy Lines? And yet no one wrote a book about the Canadian contribution on D-Day?

Prisoner of Dieppe: World War II, Alistair Morrison, Occupied France, 1942, Hugh Brewster, 2010.

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So, I get where we’re coming from here. The failed raid on Dieppe was a big deal, which led to an awful lot of Canadians being kept prisoner for years, which is not something that most people learn a lot about in school. So yes—but again, I feel like the “Canadians kept as POWs” aspect was reasonably well covered in Behind Enemy Lines. Am I wrong? Is it because these men were kept for so long—until the liberation of France and invasion of Germany? I don’t know. Let’s recap and find out.

One of the things I did enjoy about this book is how unabashedly not-into-it Alistair is about being a soldier. He is a bookish, shy kid who moves from Scotland to Ontario with his parents and younger sisters, and when his father dies fairly young, his mother has to take over making the money. Alistair’s friend Mackie, who is older and far more athletic, more or less strong-arms Alistair into joining the military in the summer of 1940, and we’re off to the races. Alistair’s mother is devastated, since her husband, Alistair’s father, was gassed very badly in the First World War, and he was never right after that and it probably contributed to his early death. So we’re already not off to a great start.

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Winter of Peril

I’ve only read this once before, and I have Thoughts. They’re mostly not all that good.

Winter of Peril: The Newfoundland Diary of Sophie Loveridge, Mairie’s Cove, New-Found-Land, 1721, Jan Andrews, 2005.

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My first question is why? Newfoundland has such a long, storied history with such great stories in it that I don’t know why Andrews opted to focus on this one. I would have guessed, if it had been up to me, that for the Newfoundland entry Dear Canada would have opted for a slice-of-life style diary (think Days of Toil and Tears) about life in an outport fishing village sometime in the mid-1800s, which would probably be the most iconic. Or maybe a Second World War story about the Battle of the Atlantic, or joining Canada in 1949, or even (and stay with me here) a story about the Viking settlement at L’anse-aux-Meadows! (Too out there? Probably.) I love Newfoundland A LOT and just returned from an extremely agreeable weekend there, so I’m favourably disposed to like it this story, but for whatever reason both Newfie entries in Dear Canada end up falling flat. (The other being Smoke and Ashes, which is relatively new and about the fire of St. John’s in 1892.)

At any rate, what we have here is a fairly classic fish-out-of-water story about a wealthy girl from Dorset who comes to Newfoundland with her parents, who are equally wealthy and out-of-touch, and they stay over during a harsh winter. You’d think there’s room for an engaging story there, but ultimately it falls fairly flat despite an awful lot of drama. Maybe it’s just me because I don’t care for Sophie’s voice, but overall, this one was not a win for me.

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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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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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