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.
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.
I hear you! Believe me, I hear you, and I also think Sunfire is the most hilariously awful crap to grace the pages of “books” in many years. This one promises to be especially bad, since it contains actual, real historical people. Probably depicted poorly, I’ll hazard a guess.
Merrie, Vivian Schurfranz, 1987.
Before you start, “Merrie” is a variant on Mary. If you’re like me and stood there goggling at it going “What the fuck?” for a few minutes. I already don’t have a good feeling about this book. Also, the cover is atrocious—Merrie has some kind of wild cape going on with an oddly-Victorian-looking merlot gown, while there’s two dudes: one wearing a…scarf around his neck and what appears to be blue jeans with one of those blousy pirate shirts? And the other wearing a Pilgrim getup that looks like it was purchased from Crazy Frank’s Halloween House Of Fun. He’s even clutching a buckled hat. Helpful hint: the Pilgrims wore normal clothing for their day, including all the colours, and didn’t wear buckles on their hats.
And starting this book I already don’t think I’m going to like Merrie. The whole premise of this book is that she’s stowed away on the Mayflower to escape an arranged marriage. Except she’s supposed to come from wealth, which means that she would have been brought up with the idea that marriage would not be strictly a love match, and secondly, why the Mayflower of all the godforsaken ships in England? Surely you could find a ship going somewhere warm and not a completely isolated place in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, Merrie is discovered on page six and we’re ready to rock and roll.
I always enjoy a good crossover book! I mean, this isn’t truly a crossover because no such thing exists, but if it did, this would be it. Also, this is just a good book, which helps.
A Desperate Road To Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson, Virginia to Canada West, 1863-1864¸Karleen Bradford, 2009.
For starters, Lawrence Hill, who wrote The Book of Negroes, is one of the consulting authors listed in here, which is a pretty good sign that it’s going to be good. I’ve found that Karleen Bradford’s books have been a little bit hit-or-miss, but overall pretty solid, and if I had to rank them, I’d put this one at the top, even with its issues. Almost a quarter of this book takes place in the States, to start with, which is why I want to classify it as a crossover, if only such a thing existed. I mean, if I had my way the shelves would be jammed with quality historical fiction for kids and we wouldn’t need a crossover, but this is a book I’d like to see available on both sides of the border. So often in the States the story about the Underground Railroad goes “and then they went to Canada, the end,” which is not a particularly satisfying ending! And in Canada the story is usually “they came to Canada, and things were great, the end,” which is also not a particularly true ending. And that’s where this book comes into play.
I wouldn’t say this book is bad, but it’s more or less unrelenting misery right from the word go.
A Sea of Sorrows: The Typhus Epidemic Diary of Johanna Leary, Ireland to Canada East, 1847, Norah McClintock, 2012.
I mean, look at the title, right? Anyway, Norah McClintock actually just passed away in February, and wrote a number of YA mystery/thrillers, like a sort of updated Caroline B. Cooney. (Remember those? Flight #116 Is Down gave me so many nightmares.) This is her only historical fiction book, and while like I said it isn’t bad, it’s definitely not her forte. Now, we can do a Compare-n-Contrast to the truly dreadful So Far From Home by Barry Denenberg, which has the same basic concept—poor Irish girl flees Irish potato famine, finds the New World isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—but thankfully features no weirdly written-out Irish phonetic accents and a minimal reliance on Irish folklore.
I may be the first person to read my library’s copy of this book. It’s in pristine condition.
After the very first line starting off with “fairies and pookas and banshees,” I was deeply afraid we were in for another terrible Funetik Aksent type thing, but we’re OK. Except for the fact that there’s a typo literally on the first page—“bother” for “brother.” Sigh. Anyway, Johanna is on her way to Dublin and then Liverpool and then to Canada in order to leave Ireland, where they’re all starving to death—they being her parents, her older brother Michael, and infant brother Patrick. Her father’s brother Liam is already there, somewhere in what is now Ontario, and although they haven’t heard from him in almost a year, they’re confident he’ll be happy to see them again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)