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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Pieces of the Past

Buckle up, it doesn’t get much darker than this.

Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, Carol Matas, 2013.

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I feel like Dear Canada’s normally-depressing books just weren’t depressing enough, so Scholastic said “let’s just go for broke and write a Holocaust book to really round it all out.” But how would they write a book about the Holocaust—which, as you’ll remember, took place in Germany—in Canada? Easy, they’ll write a book about a horribly-traumatized girl adopted out as a refugee to a Canadian family in Winnipeg! Too easy. (Spoiler: Nothing in this book is easy. It’s brutal.)

One of the things I like the most about this book is that Rose, our protagonist, isn’t really all that likable. This is something that YA and children’s books have started to steer away from now, but when I was growing up, it seemed like every protagonist of every book was fun and smart and kind and if not popular, still had a core group of amazing friends. There were not a lot of books about girls or boys who were mean or lonely or dumb or just kind of sucked. Not that Rose is any of those things—she’s not—but she’s severely traumatized and not really interested in making friends or socializing with anyone except the other orphans she knows. Which is a very refreshing point of view, if that’s not too strange of a word to use here.

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Transported

I have long said that Dear Canada books are by far more depressing than their Dear America counterparts. This is my first foray into Australia-centric books, and if it’s any indicator, Australia has both Canada and America beat all hollow.

Transported: The Diary of Elizabeth Harvey, Australia 1790¸Goldie Alexander, 2000.

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My edition is the UK “My Story” edition, but this same book was released in the My Australian Story series under the title Surviving Sydney Cove in much the same way that a few of the Dear America books were re-released in the UK under the My Story tag. Anyway, I have been assured that the text is the same and only the cover/title have been changed, and as it happens I like this cover better, aesthetically.

Also I’ll freely and fully admit that my knowledge of Australian history is extremely scanty (I feel like I start every review of any book that’s not about Canadian or American history with that disclaimer, but it’s especially true here) but I do know enough to know that the first white settlers in Australia basically had an extremely rough ride of it. And good God, nowhere is that more evident than this book. I was going to say “it’s like the story of the Pilgrims except most of them died” but….half of the Pilgrims did die, and I think we all know how Jamestown turned out. (Hint: Any time your Wikipedia article has a subheading called “The Starving Time,” it’s not a good time.)

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Rachel

We’ve had a couple weeks of respite from these, so let’s get back into the trash fire that is Sunfire. Other trash fires just don’t compare to this glory of these books.

Rachel, Vivian Schurfranz, 1986.

rachel

The premise of this book is not, by itself, horrible. (That’s pretty high praise for one of these books, I know.) Unfortunately, it is ground that has been trodden very well in a zillion other books, including not one but two different Dear America books and a whole slew of others. Why is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster so endlessly popular for kids’ and YA fiction? This seems like a strange choice to me! There have been (unfortunately) many, many, many factory disasters, and there’s no end of trade union drama during that part of American history, but the Triangle disaster is like catnip for mediocre fiction writers.

Anyway, our titular Rachel is a Jewish immigrant from Poland, which you can tell because we start right in on Page One with the horrifyingly bad writing. “This day, August 11, 1910, was a momentous occasion!” Yeah, that is uncalled for. We launch right into discussions of pogroms on Page Two, see the Statue of Liberty on the same page, and have awkward introductions to her parents and younger brother on Page Three. I see we’re wasting no time here and we have hit all of the standards so far in “This Is A Book About Immigration, How Many Cliches Can We Hit?” Do you think there will also be a tense scene with the Ellis Island officials? (Spoiler: duh.)

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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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West to a Land of Plenty

Interesting twist: I hated this book as a kid, and enjoyed it way, way more as an adult. Who knew?

West To A Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883, Jim Murphy, 1998.

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A few things I was mistaken about: this is one of the earliest DA books published (number eight out of thirty-six!), and it’s set a bit earlier than I thought (1883), and it’s one of the very few written by a man. Jim Murphy also wrote Land of the Buffalo Bones, which I hated, and Barry Denenberg wrote five (for which my tally was one good, one mediocre, three awful). While it’s well-written, it drags in places and has some uneven pacing. The characterization is great and makes up for some of the shortfalls—but one of the biggest shortfalls is that this is intended to be about utopian, planned communities in the Western US, but that barely comes up at all. Which is such a shame! I would have loved it if that aspect had been a bigger, more important part of the story, but instead it comes across as more of a basic crossing-the-country story, which is already amply covered.

As a kid, the only thing I liked about this book was that it was pretty. (It’s ivory! Pretty!) Other than that, I hated Teresa, the protagonist, and her irritating little sister Netta. I thought they were both annoying and deserved to be unhappy. As an adult, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than annoying, I found it enjoyable and entertaining and realistic. I don’t know what it says about me that when I was actually among the target audience I hated it but now that I’ve aged out of it I like it better. Or what it says about the book. Who knows.

Teresa, at fourteen, is en route from her home in New York to a planned community in Idaho with her parents, her three younger siblings, her grandmother, and a number of aunts and uncles and cousins. “I hate this train and its tiny wooden seats and the cacarocielu crawling everywhere! And the rain. I HATE IT!!” So you know it’s shaping up to be great so far. She’s extremely upset at having to leave her home and her friends in New York, and the fact that the train is slow and miserable and dirty has not made things one bit better for her. I don’t know why I didn’t like this growing up—this is 100% accurate how most kids feel when being forced to move. The structure of this diary is a bit different, because Teresa shares it with her twelve-year-old sister Netta, who writes in it almost as much as Teresa does. It’s a really interesting shift—Teresa tends to write more about their days and who is doing what, and Netta writes a bit more about her feelings and thoughts and plans for the future. It’s subtle, but nicely done.

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Constance

I know this book is older than most of the ones I do, but I was absolutely obsessed with this book as a kid (why? Who knows) and I found my old copy and couldn’t let it go.

Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, Patricia Clapp, 1968.

constance

Look at that cover. I wouldn’t say it was a masterwork of art, but hey, my copy says “4.95” on the back cover so clearly we weren’t dealing with an absolute bulwark of the literary world.

Now, my copy of this definitely says “10 Up,” and I read it when I was ten or so, but…wow, this was an awfully big step from most of the other stuff I was reading at that age! And while I’m sure I could understand it just fine, I definitely did not Get It because there is a lot of kissing, relationship tangles, and political infighting in this book that just flew straight over my head. Why did I like it so much at ten??? The world will never know.

I think in particular the great strength of this book is that it’s not about the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it happens, obviously, but the emphasis is on what happens next which almost never happens. It’s kind of like how there’s lots of YA books about the Civil War, but none about the Reconstruction period, or lots of books about the Revolutionary War but none about the years afterward. But I think it’s particular important in this story, because usually the narrative around the Pilgrims is “they landed on Plymouth Rock, plenty of them died, Squanto saves them, they had Thanksgiving while wearing buckle hats, and then we skip right to the Salem Witch Trials.” Duh, there was a lot of stuff in the meantime that gets glossed over! But this book does a great job of going into some detail.

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