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.


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.


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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These Are My Words

Oh, come on. Did anyone seriously think that I would not buy and review this book immediately, as soon as it came out, with great fanfare and excitement? It’s the latest Dear Canada installment!

These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens, Northern Ontario, 1966, Ruby Slipperjack, 2016.


Ruby Slipperjack, the author, is a survivor of a residential school herself, and this book is based loosely on her experiences of growing up in a remote area and going to a city school beginning in Grade Five. When I heard DC was putting out a book about residential schools, I was super excited, but I also thought they would be setting it on the prairies between, oh, the 1880s and 1930s or so, which I think is what people tend to associate with the “classic” residential schools experience. But, rightly, Scholastic Canada probably figured they had a bunch of books set during that time period, and they were due for one set in a more recent period and they could focus on the residential school experience in the “modern” era, which is a lot less popular. Although it has been gaining some media exposure with the movement towards reconciliation, I think it forms much less of the popular conception.

I’m not going to do a full recap of this book, because it’s so new and I don’t want to spoil it, but it was shockingly, astoundingly hard to read in places, and amazingly different in tone from any other book in any other Dear America/Dear Canada/Royal Diaries/I Am Canada/My Name Is America/etc. series that I’ve ever read. I think the only one that it even comes close to in tone is Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, the Vietnam War era DA novel, and that’s only because it deals with some slightly mature themes in roughly the same time frame. But this book is so much more intense than that. Not in the sense that it has an extraordinarily heavy plot—in fact, it’s fairly light on the plot—but the subject matter is hardcore.

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With Nothing But Our Courage

Does it still qualify as a Revolutionary War book is it takes place just slightly afterwards? Sure, why not. This takes place juuuust as the war is finishing up and then just after.

With Nothing But Our Courage: The Loyalist Diary of Mary MacDonald, Johnstown, Quebec, 1783, Karleen Bradford, 2002.

mary macdonald

I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of Karleen Bradford, and this isn’t even my favourite novel by her. But it’s still really interesting to visit the postwar period from a non-American perspective, since the Dear America novels on this period focus on the war itself and even the Loyalist novel takes place at the very beginnings of the war.

The Revolutionary War is one of those mish-mashy things that encompassed a bunch of different combatants (did you know Spain was involved???) and brought a generally rocky start to the United States. So the book’s setting, in 1783/84, is right in the thick of the nonsense. The protagonist, Mary, lives in Albany with her Loyalist parents and grandmother and two younger siblings—her older brother Angus being off fighting with the King’s army. A group of Patriots—including former friends of the family—take her father and tie him to a mule and parade him through town, telling him to get out of town or else.

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To Stand On My Own

I’ve been skipping out on the Canadian content lately! I must remedy that. I’ve been wanting to do this book for quite awhile because it’s just so interesting and extremely readable, and it’s nearly impossible to find books targeted at kids that deal with epidemics of disease where the focus isn’t the acute fear of the disease, but the aftermath.

To Stand on My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1937, Barbara Haworth-Attard, 2010.


A couple of things of note about this: I love that it’s set in Saskatoon but the focus isn’t on how terrible life in the prairies is–it just happens to be the setting. This is Haworth-Attard’s second Dear Canada book, and while I hated the first one, I really loved this one. Mostly because I thought her first one, A Trail of Broken Dreams, was unfulfilling and depressing and lacked focus, but also because it was one of those novels where you don’t get a terrible clear picture of the narrator? This one is much more direct. And secondly–it’s set in 1937, but it has a very “modern” feel, which I know is strange for a historical novel, but it’s much more directly relatable than, say, Not A Nickel To Spare, which is set just five years earlier and which I really hated. That one feels ancient–this novel is so much more relatable!

So this diary’s protagonist, Noreen, is twelve years old and lives in Saskatoon with her parents and her two brothers. Her grandfather lives nearby, as does her aunt and uncle and cousin–who are not so badly affected by the Depression, like Noreen’s family has been. They’re limping along OK, not great, but not in the poorhouse either, and it’s summer and very hot and things are kind of dull at home. So Noreen hangs out with her friend Bessie and go goof off around town, or stays home to read and help her mother clean–“Mother is forever complaining about the house being dusty and it is. I know because I’m the one who has to dust it.”

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