Before we get started, let’s look at the cover of this book that perfectly encompasses everything all 90s historical fiction was about: clothes, and wars going on in the distance in soft-focus. And it was a good call by the cover artist to go with 90s hair instead of period-appropriate 1860s hair, because it is one era that has not translated well.
In My Father’s House, Ann Rinaldi, 1993.
This is a Deep Cut Ann Rinaldi—and I know I’ve complained about her before because the lustre really wore off quickly after I was no longer 12—but this one was better than some of the others I’ve reread. Partially because I, uh, don’t think I read this one as a kid? I didn’t remember a single thing and I feel like I might have, so I think I was reading this one for the very first time. My biggest problem with this book is that it’s boring. The whole thing feels like you’re driving towards some kind of major conclusion, but…there isn’t one. Besides the end of the war, I guess. (Should that be a spoiler? 152 years later?)
This book is one of many Rinaldi books based on a true story, and that’s the story of a man who owned the land that the first battle of the Civil War, First Manassas, was built on. He moved so he would never have to see another soldier again, and ended up moving to Appomattox, where the war was ended in his parlor. That is a true story and it’s one of history’s great coincidences, and would make for an excellent book. This is not that book. This is about Oscie Mason, the stepdaughter of Will McLean, the man in question. Unfortunately, Oscie is not a great character. She’s supposed to come off as plucky and responsible, but in reality she’s just kind of irritating.
Reading this book is like an extremely frustrating exercise where you really, really, really want to like the protagonist but you can’t because she’s written so terribly unsympathetically you could cry.
Kristina: The Girl King, Sweden, 1638, Carolyn Meyer, 2003.
This is actually the same problem I have with a lot of Carolyn Meyer’s heroines, where they’re so obviously intended to be. Her book on Anastasia is exactly the same way. Maybe I just have very little patience! That’s true, but I’m not sure if it’s relevant here.
Kristina is one of the most fascinating people in European history—raised to be a king, abdicated her throne at only twenty-eight and converted to Catholicism, traveled Europe extensively, and then died and was buried at the Vatican. Her gender identity and sexual identity have been heavily, heavily, heavily discussed in the four centuries or so since her death, and there’s a couple intriguing hints here but nothing major either way. Which is fair, because Kristina is only about thirteen here, but it’s an interesting way to look back at it!
I don’t know how I feel about this book. Hugh Brewster is an excellent writer, but the choice of material is slightly odd. Why are there two I Am Canada books that deal with Canadian soldiers being captured as POWs—this one, and Behind Enemy Lines? And yet no one wrote a book about the Canadian contribution on D-Day?
Prisoner of Dieppe: World War II, Alistair Morrison, Occupied France, 1942, Hugh Brewster, 2010.
So, I get where we’re coming from here. The failed raid on Dieppe was a big deal, which led to an awful lot of Canadians being kept prisoner for years, which is not something that most people learn a lot about in school. So yes—but again, I feel like the “Canadians kept as POWs” aspect was reasonably well covered in Behind Enemy Lines. Am I wrong? Is it because these men were kept for so long—until the liberation of France and invasion of Germany? I don’t know. Let’s recap and find out.
One of the things I did enjoy about this book is how unabashedly not-into-it Alistair is about being a soldier. He is a bookish, shy kid who moves from Scotland to Ontario with his parents and younger sisters, and when his father dies fairly young, his mother has to take over making the money. Alistair’s friend Mackie, who is older and far more athletic, more or less strong-arms Alistair into joining the military in the summer of 1940, and we’re off to the races. Alistair’s mother is devastated, since her husband, Alistair’s father, was gassed very badly in the First World War, and he was never right after that and it probably contributed to his early death. So we’re already not off to a great start.
I’ve only read this once before, and I have Thoughts. They’re mostly not all that good.
Winter of Peril: The Newfoundland Diary of Sophie Loveridge, Mairie’s Cove, New-Found-Land, 1721, Jan Andrews, 2005.
My first question is why? Newfoundland has such a long, storied history with such great stories in it that I don’t know why Andrews opted to focus on this one. I would have guessed, if it had been up to me, that for the Newfoundland entry Dear Canada would have opted for a slice-of-life style diary (think Days of Toil and Tears) about life in an outport fishing village sometime in the mid-1800s, which would probably be the most iconic. Or maybe a Second World War story about the Battle of the Atlantic, or joining Canada in 1949, or even (and stay with me here) a story about the Viking settlement at L’anse-aux-Meadows! (Too out there? Probably.) I love Newfoundland A LOT and just returned from an extremely agreeable weekend there, so I’m favourably disposed to like it this story, but for whatever reason both Newfie entries in Dear Canada end up falling flat. (The other being Smoke and Ashes, which is relatively new and about the fire of St. John’s in 1892.)
At any rate, what we have here is a fairly classic fish-out-of-water story about a wealthy girl from Dorset who comes to Newfoundland with her parents, who are equally wealthy and out-of-touch, and they stay over during a harsh winter. You’d think there’s room for an engaging story there, but ultimately it falls fairly flat despite an awful lot of drama. Maybe it’s just me because I don’t care for Sophie’s voice, but overall, this one was not a win for me.
Now we’re into serious Deep Cuts territory, very deep into the canon. This is For Serious Fans Only.
Look to The Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, A French Slave Girl: New York Colony, 1763, Patricia McKissack, 2004.
Now, okay. It pains me to say this because I really love Patricia McKissack and I think she’s great. (I would have liked it better if they had more than one author to write about black characters in Dear America, but she was the only one until the rebooted editions, when they had a story about a girl at an integrated school in the 1950s.) And I enjoyed that it covered a different aspect of the French and Indian War, even though it takes place the exact same year as Standing in the Light (which is a pretty standard captivity narrative, that I’ll get to in a different entry). But. But.
This book is just not all that interesting. I know. I hate it too. But it is dull. And it has no reason to be, because it’s a really thrilling story, with a lot of real-life influences, and a lot of really interesting reflections on slavery and freedom, but it just never really comes together and sings. All the components are there—interesting and flawed characters, an engaging story, deep thoughts. It just doesn’t quite cross the barrier, which is a real shame.
We’re back in the Birchbark House for the third installment!
The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich, 2008.
OK, so The Game of Silence was pretty depressing, let’s see if the third book will be any better. At this point, Omakayas is twelve and her family has moved from their original home, and it looks like things might be stabilizing a bit. But clearly not all that much, because as we open Omakayas and her younger brother Pinch are in the process of being washed away in a canoe down some rapids. But they end up lost and alone further down the river without a good idea of how to get home.
They find a baby porcupine which looks delicious, but in the process of hunting it, Pinch gets quilled badly in the face—but instead of eating it, Pinch vows to spare the porcupine’s life. So even though Omakayas would rather not, they bring it with them to camp and then head out the next morning, porcupine riding comfortably on Quill’s head. The rapids that they lived through are so dramatic and awful that they’re sure that a protector spirit helped them through it, and Omakayas sacrifices her red beads that her grandmother gave her in thanks.
Do you have any idea how many times I’ve read this book? So many! I don’t even like it all that much, to be honest. I just keep reading it and reading it in an effort to recap it and somehow never get up the energy to do so. I own this book and it’s taken me forever to get around to it, which should tell you just how much I don’t enjoy it.
Not A Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen, Toronto, Ontario, 1932, Perry Nodelman, 2007.
Here’s the thing: this is overall a really well-written book, and Nodelman is a professor of children’s literature and the editor of Canadian Children’s Literature, and has written textbooks on the subject. There are parts of this book that I adore—it’s a terrifically evocative picture of Toronto during a certain place and time. But (and you knew there was a “but” in there because I can’t unequivocally like anything ever)…something about it just does not work for me. Part of it is because so much of the book is focused on Sally’s cousin Benny—overwhelmingly so, to the point where it really seems like he just wanted to write a book about Benny and the Christie Pits riots but got roped into writing this instead. And part of it is because it doesn’t ring true as a realistic depiction of a preteen girl. I don’t think it’s because he’s a man, since I think any good writer is capable of writing a persuasive character regardless of whether they can personally identify with them, but it seems like it’s because he just was more interested in writing about Benny!