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.

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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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A Time of Angels

Here’s a rare example of a book that I not only never read as a kid, but never even heard of.

Book: A Time of Angels, Karen Hesse, 1995.

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It’s a little strange I never heard of this one, since I read a lot of Karen Hesse—Out Of the Dust, The Music Of Dolphins, and A Light In The Storm being the big ones. But I came across this one at a used bookstore and I am a gigantic sucker for anything set during the Spanish flu epidemic so I had to get it.

Hannah is a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl who lives in Boston with her two younger sisters, Libbie and Eve, in the care of her Tanta Rose and Rose’s friend Vashti. The girls’ mother has been in Russia for years—originally having returned to care for her own elderly mother, then trapped there by the war—and their father having been drafted earlier that year. Tanta Rose loves them as much as their parents do, but Hannah misses her parents desperately, and loves and resents her little sisters in nearly equal amounts.

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