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.
We’re back in with the absolute classics!
Number The Stars¸ Lois Lowry, 1989.
I understand they’re reissued this with a blue/gray cover, but this is the cover I grew up with and was on every school library bookshelf. I feel like the red and black is a particularly scary, and by scary I mean good, choice. This is a Newbery Medal winner, and an all-around wonder of a book, but I think the real beauty of this book is that it’s much, much scarier to adults than it is to kids. When I first read this book, I was probably around nine or ten, which is the age of Annemarie, the protagonist, and while I enjoyed it, I think I missed a lot of the subtler scariness. But now I’m nearly thirty and reading it is far, far worse, and it makes me want to cry.
Annemarie lives in Copenhagen with her parents and her younger sister, Kirsti. Since Copenhagen is under occupation by the Nazis, things are somewhat strained to say the least, but most of this goes over Annemarie’s head other than the soldiers on every street corner. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, is Jewish, and presumably a bit more worried about the state of affairs, but they still go to school and run races and generally behave like children. Annemarie used to have an older sister as well—Lise—who was engaged to be married when she was killed in a car accident two years before. Ever since, Lise’s fiancé Peter comes around to visit, but Annemarie notes how much older he seems ever since then.
One of the only subjects to have a Dear America, Dear Canada, and My Name Is America book each on the topic is Japanese internment. However, the way it’s treated in each book is vastly different. Last week we did the (horrible) Dear America relaunch, and last year we did MNIA. Let’s see how Dear Canada does with it. (Spoiler alert: This is the best of the three.)
Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941, Susan Midori Aihoshi, 2012.
The fact that Canada interned its Japanese citizens is one of its most horrible chapters, but there are very few books focusing on it for a youth audience. This is Aihoshi’s first novel, and she’s really doing yeoman’s work in producing a great and engaging novel without descending into melodrama. She is a third-generation Japanese Canadian herself, and her own grandparents and parents were interned during the war, which lends it a certain poignancy. It’s head and shoulders above either of the other attempts at novels on internment, and even the really minor quibbles I have with it have nothing to do with the central message of the book.
The protagonist, Mary, is twelve years old and lives in Vancouver with her parents, grandfather, and five siblings. She’s very bubbly and outgoing, which is nice to see, expressly because lots and lots of YA protagonists are bookish, shy, and nerdy. (I get why—that is their primary demographic, and I was a bookish and shy kid myself—but it’s really nice to see a character who’s super outgoing for a change!) She has three best friends (one Japanese, two white), and she gets a bunch of cool presents for her birthday: bobby socks and pencils and sparkly barrettes and Maple Buds (that’s a candy, American friends) and a Hollywood magazine and a little camera. Her parents have agreed to let her go berry picking over the summer to earn money to go to Girl Guide camp, and it generally seems that life is pretty damn perfect for her.
Hold onto your hats, I have a lot to say about this book. Mostly it is not good. Last week was a great example of the relaunched series. This week is not.
The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941, Kirby Larson, 2010.
This was the first new book in the relaunched series. It is not good. Kirby Larson is a fine author, but her work isn’t really to my taste. Yeah, I read Hattie Big Sky and it just didn’t do it for me. This is a long book, too, maybe the longest of the DA novels at almost 300 pages, but covering only a year and a half, which is fairly short for that much text.
The problem with the book is just the premise. It’s about Piper Davis, the daughter of a pastor to a Japanese Baptist congregation in Seattle, and they follow their congregation when they are interned in a camp. I really, really disagree that this is a story that needs to be told, because the bulk of the story seems to be “White girl feels really bad that her friends and neighbours are incarcerated.” My Name is America managed to do a decent job covering it, as did Dear Canada, but the difference was that both of those stories focused on actual characters who were being wrongly persecuted for their ethnic background. This story doesn’t have that impact, because Piper isn’t at any point incarcerated, and she seems more spoiled than anything else. I just really, really, really, really disliked this book. I will try my best to be fair. But no promises.
Do you remember how the 1920s book in this series was bizarre and poorly-written and a mess? This one is worse, if you can believe it.
Grace of the Wild Rose Inn, Jennifer Armstrong, 1994.
I mentioned before how there’s a book in this series set in about 1899 or so, and it’s about one of the zillions of MacKenzie daughters who wants to go to college instead of getting married, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it so for the time being (and hopefully, for all time) this is going to be the final book in this series. And thank goodness, because it really goes out with a bang. And not a good one.
On a semi-interesting note, since there’s a relatively short (temporal) period between the 1920s book and this one, we get the interesting situation of the mother in this one being the girlfriend of Drunky Bob from the last book. If you don’t commit every one of my reviews to memory (and why not?), in Claire of the Wild Rose Inn, she has a younger brother Bob who is a hopeless sodden drunk at the age of sixteen (!) and knocks up his girlfriend, Hope, during the course of the book. That pregnancy results in the protagonist of this book, Grace, and Hope is “Mrs. MacKenzie.” I feel like one of the downsides to having a romance series about the daughters of this line is that they’re constantly marrying out of the family and screwing off to Other Stuff, so instead of being a story about mothers and daughters it’s a story about aunts and nieces. Which isn’t bad! It’s just that for a series that’s based on how special this one family is, it irritates me that they’re constantly marrying out. (Maybe the book I missed was a tour de force that eliminated all my problems with this series. But I doubt it.)
Well, this book puts me in a not-before-experienced situation. What if I just hated a book not because it was badly written or horrifically racist or dumb, but just because every single thing about the stupid book grated on my very last nerve?
My Secret War: The World War Two Diary of Madeline Beck, Long Island, New York, 1941, Mary Pope Osborne, 2009.
I will fully admit that this book is not bad. It is not bad in any way! For whatever reason, I find it infinitely annoying, and part of that is probably because the protagonist is too realistic. She’s a very realistic 13-year-old girl, and there’s a reason 13-year-old girls aren’t the centre of many non-YA novels—they can be irritating as hell. I can say that because I used to be one.