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.

charlotte

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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A Time for Courage

Today is a special Election Day edition of Young Adult Historical Vault, in honour of my own right to vote! And for all other American women. Go vote. Exercise your rights that women worked so hard to get. And a twofer in Thematic Weeks, because Friday is Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day, and this book is also about the First World War. I’m knocking them out all over the place here.

A Time For Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington D.C., 1917, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.

kat bowen.jpg

Kat is a thirteen-year-old, fairly wealthy girl in Washington, whose whole family is politically active. Her mother and older sister and aunt are active in the suffrage efforts, but Kat just feels kind of blah. She’s not a good student (I do love a story about a poor student! They’re not the norm!), she hangs out with her best friend and cousin, Alma, and she likes to go to the drugstore for sodas and ice cream. I like Kat. We could hang out. Alma’s father, Kat’s uncle Bayard, is rabidly against women’s rights, and kind of a dick. Not kind of a dick, a major dick. My senses, honed by reading literally hundreds of these books, are telling me that Bayard is going to cause some trouble.

Kat’s mother is friendly with Alice Paul, the secretary of the Women’s Party, and consequently gets to meet some of the important movers and shakers there along with her mother and aunt and cousin. This infuriates her uncle to the point where he and Kat’s aunt are having pretty bad marital problems. Kat’s father, Dr. Bowen, is infinitely more supportive of his own wife’s efforts in the suffragette movement, even if he thinks she goes overboard. Especially with the picket line the Women’s Party starts directly outside the White House. Kat and Alma sew banners and bring soup and hot coffee to the women on the line, since it’s January, but other than that she’s not allowed to participate.

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Color Me Dark

I’ve definitely read this book with the intent of reviewing it like four separate times and for whatever reason I just get bogged down every time and forget about it and move onto something more interesting. Why? It’s not boring! It’s well-written! Maybe by the time you finish reading this recap you’ll have an answer for me.

Color Me Dark: The Great Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919, Patricia McKissack, 2000.

nellie lee

This is one of those books that technically takes place in two places—Chicago, at the end, and Tennessee, where it starts. Nellie is eleven and lives there with her twelve-year-old sister Erma, her parents, her uncle, and their grandparents, in the funeral home her family runs. She has an older brother, who’s still with the army, and a young uncle who’s off with the army as well. So things are relatively smooth there—they have to go to a coloured school, which isn’t great, and there are bullies, but otherwise their family is happy and things are going pretty well.

Nellie’s father and grandfather are members of the Colored Men’s Improvement Association chapter (which is an organization by the NAACP), since they’re business owners and community leaders, but this occasionally leads to some tension with the local constabulary. But this is less important than the news that Nellie’s uncle Pace is coming home on the train, and everyone is tickled to death to see him again. But the sheriff brings him home, instead—saying he was so drunk he lay down on the train tracks and was hit by a train. They’re all baffled, first, because Pace doesn’t drink, and devastated second. Erma Jean is with him when he dies, and after that she becomes mute. Just flat out can’t speak anymore. She says nothing all through the wake and funeral, even when the far-flung uncles and aunts come into town, including her uncle Meese from Chicago.

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Brothers Far from Home

How many stories do you know of that deal with severe disfigurement and war injuries? This one! I promise it’s way, way better than the summary I just gave you.

Brothers Far From Home: The World War I Diary of Eliza Bates, Uxbridge, Ontario, 1916, Jean Little, 2003.

eliza bates

Now there aren’t a lot of books that cover the First World War with the grace and fluidity that this one does, and there’s vanishingly few other books that cover disfigurement and the postwar experience for a YA audience.  I love Jean Little, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned many thousands of times before to anyone who will listen, and her own experience with disability really gives this book an aspect of gravity and beauty that I don’t know if it would have had otherwise.

This is a pretty heavy book (as are many First World War books, since as you know there was a great deal of death involved), but it manages to have its moments of comedy without going overboard with it. It’s a remarkably well done little bit of literature. Let’s get going.

Eliza is in the middle of seven children who belong to a minister and his wife in Uxbridge, which is actually not too super far from where I live (which has nothing to do with anything other than being a interesting fact for myself).  You know, I feel like the trope of Lonely Middle Child has been somewhat abandoned in recent years, since families with a LOT of kids don’t show up in a lot of literature anymore. Eliza suffers from “not old enough to be with the older kids, too old to be with the little kids,” and has to share a room with her older sister Verity, whom she hates—mostly because Verity sees her as a little kid. It’s hard as an adult not to sympathize with Verity a bit, though—she’s seventeen and hanging out with their brother Jack, who is on his last leave before heading overseas, and his best friend Rufus, same. This is one of those things where as a kid, you’d be on fire with righteous indignation, but having been through the misery of your late teenage years, you completely, completely understand.

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Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess

Let’s get something straight right off the bat here: I hated this book, more than any other Royal Diaries book that’s out there. I hated it when I read it as a teenager and I hated it now.

Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, Russia, 1914, Carolyn Meyer, 2004.

anastasia

I wouldn’t go so far to say that it’s bad, exactly. Not in the sense that it’s a poorly-written pile of dreck or anything. It’s perfectly competently written, it just completely fails at walking the line between innocently naïve and foreshadowing, and tone-deafness. However, part of the reason that I disliked it so strongly was because I listened to the audiobook version of this, read by Rene Raudman. Now, she is a great audiobook reader, and I don’t know if it was intentional, but she manages to imbue Anastasia with a sort of slightly whiny, over-privileged tone that really just creates this sense of snottiness that feels indicative of nobility.

And what’s more, this is a terrible cover. Poor Anastasia looks like a melted doll. This was reissued a couple of years ago but that cover is even worse, so I’m choosing to pretend it never happened.

Now, I think this was an interesting choice, since the only other Royal Diaries book that is poised right on the brink of revolution is Marie Antoinette, but that one feels to me to be slightly less tone-deaf. In this one, though, Anastasia is so focused on how awesome her dad is and how nobody could possibly think that anything other than absolute imperial rule would ever, ever work, that it ends up flying right past “interesting foreshadowing” and heading into “hit you over the head with it” territory. The thing is, the one thing absolutely everybody knows about Anastasia is that she was part of the last imperial family of Russia and grew up in magnificent splendour, and that she was executed with her family following the revolution of 1917, and that she was rumoured to have escaped. But while Marie Antoinette’s book is handled with some grace and real understanding, this novel just comes across as….head-turningly naïve. I understand it as a stylistic choice, but I think it’s a slightly strange one and I don’t know how well it comes through.

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When Christmas Comes Again

It’s December and officially the Christmas season, so let’s do the two Christmas-themed Dear Americas! This book differs from most of the others in several ways, but it’s still interesting and well-done.

Book: When Christmas Comes Again: The World War One Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917, Beth Seidel Levine, 2002.

simone spencer

In order to write a novel about a girl involved in the army, she had to be quite a bit older, so Simone is seventeen at the outset of the novel (compared to the average Dear America protagonist, who is eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and very occasionally older). This is also one of those rare DA novels about a wealthy, upper-class girl—the vast majority of them focus on girls who are poor or middle-class, I would assume for relatability reasons among the majority of readers. Actually, very interestingly, another one is A Time For Courage, which also takes place in 1917, in a strange coincidence that I think was probably not intended.

Anyway, Simone is “society” indeed, thanks to her incredibly wealthy father, and a bit bored of things. She doesn’t know what she wants to do after graduating high school, but now since war has just been declared, it adds an “exciting” bustle to things. Simone’s mother is French and owns a chapelier, or hat shop, because she was bored to tears and refused to sit around doing nothing and presumably, being society all day. Simone’s mother was a humble girl in a bake shop in Paris when her father met her, and Simone has grown up on stories about Paris and true love, fate, etc., which is going to come back to be important.

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If I Die Before I Wake

Apparently, it’s CanCon November! All Canadian content, all the time. Here’s something nice and cheery just in time for Remembrance Day.

If I Die Before I Wake: The Flu Epidemic Diary of Fiona Macgregor, Toronto, Ontario, 1918, Jean Little, 2007.

fiona macgregor

Let’s get one thing straight: Jean Little is a Canadian treasure. If you’re American, like I am, and didn’t discover her works until later, you are absolutely missing out. She’s written several Dear Canada novels and they’re all spectacular, a ridiculous number of other great books, and teaches children’s literature at Guelph. She’s amazing and touches on really horrible issues and problems, but she writes so beautifully and clearly—there are some novelists who write about child abuse or disabilities for a children’s audience, but they can be stilted or awkward—for Jean Little, never. She handles everything with such a deft and beautiful touch.

That being said, this is an incredibly hard book to review. I think as a rule Dear Canada books tend to shy away less and are less flinching when it comes to illness and death, and this is a terrific example. While in Dear America books death comes in the background or to a tertiary character, in DC books there’s no hiding from it. It’s more realistic, in its way, but it’s also much more difficult to read. This book focuses on the Spanish Flu epidemic, but there’s another one that touches on the polio epidemic in the 40s that I’ll get to eventually, and it is brutal and totally straightforward. The protagonist is twelve years old, but honestly, I would have had a tough time with this book at age twelve.

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