The Road to Afghanistan (2013), by Linda Granfield

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Illustrated by Brian Deines

Granfield-AfghanistanThe Road to Afghanistan tells in simple but poetic language the story of Canadian soldiers going to and coming home from war. Through the brief history of a great-grandfather, a grandfather, and a soldier returned from the current war in Afghanistan, readers are given a glimpse of the sacrifices made to ensure peace in our world.

The dust jacket mentions only the Afghan war, and perhaps it would have been better for the author to focus on the soldier’s recollections of Afghanistan, of “its scenery and its people, the challenges faced and the successes achieved.” Instead, we learn more about the great-grandfather’s experience in World War One and his return home, and are given only a brief mention of the grandfather having fought in World War Two. Images of the current conflict mirror the battle scenes from the World War One pages, and pages 24 and 25 show soldiers from all three wars. This artistic comparison is perhaps too subtle; it feels as if the author has reused images, until one looks carefully at the headgear, the miniscule outlines of planes in the pastel skies, or the shape of the guns. A stronger distinction between periods and soldiers may have helped the narrative to feel more balanced, better structured.

The parallel is invoked again—less successfully—in the soldiers’ experiences. Where the great-grandfather had his arm blown off, our soldier ominously tells us: “I took my next step…” but then when we turn the page, nothing happens; there is no resolution to the comparison. “That step could have been my last,” we are told, but narratively speaking, every step on Afghani soil could have been the last. There is no explanation for why this step, in particular, mattered.

On the final page, we are shown the young female soldier as she stands proudly on Remembrance Day. This unexpected revelation really does cause readers to rethink their cultural expectations, and brings home that Canadian men and women are fighting and dying for peace. The message of this book is one that deserves to be told; but while the concept of the parallel structure is promising, its execution does not evoke an emotional response equal to that of the message.

The Hemingway Tradition (2002), by Kristin Butcher

Burtcher-HemingwayI had the honour of spending the day with Kristin Butcher this past weekend (we’ve been Facebook “friends” but never met). She kindly gave me a copy of her first novel (The Runaways, 1997) and her first book for the Orca Soundings series, The Hemingway Tradition. I immediately began reading…

The Hemingway Tradition, like all Orca Soundings novels, is short, yet Butcher manages to pack a number of interwoven issues into it. We meet Shaw as he and his mother are driving from Vancouver to their new life in Winnipeg; Shaw’s mind is filled with the contemplation of various methods of suicide. “Well, that’s a bit of a downer,” a reader might think, “starting in medias res of a story of a suicidal teenager.” It doesn’t take long, though, for us to begin to feel for Shaw in his pain: his thoughts stem from his memory of finding his father, who had shot himself through the head. The rest of the story—not surprisingly—revolves around Shaw coming to terms with his father’s suicide, his apparent desertion of his family, but more importantly his betrayal of the image Shaw had of their relationship as father and son. For Shaw, that relationship had been ideal, almost idyllic. (This is, in fact, the only obvious flaw in the text: Shaw’s parents are too ideal, his mother too understanding and aware of his needs. It would be asking too much, though, to have all of the characters as fully developed as Shaw himself: he is, after all, the focal point.) The idealized Dylan Sebring, a well-respected Canadian mystery author, had supported and taken pride in Shaw’s a love of and ability in writing. They had shared moments of beauty and joy, shared with readers through Butcher’s powerful, poetic prose. A particularly poignant example is when the image of his dead father batters against Shaw’s mind…

the blood-soaked bedroom began to dissolve. It slid like down the walls of my mind as if it were being hosed into the storm sewer I watched with fascination. I felt the tension in my body drain away with the dirty water.

Gradually I became aware of a gentle rocking. And then the lapping of water on the hull of a small boat. My body melted deeper into the molded seat of the runabout and I squinted at the sunlight winking on the water. Dad … was stretched out on the seat across from me with his feet propped on the gunwale. His eyes were closed, and his long, lean body was swaying with the rhythm of the boat. (32-33)

Shaw’s confusion about the degree of honesty in his father’s—their—life is complicated by racial and homophobic slurs students at his new school hurl at his new locker-mate and friend, Jai Dhillon. Finally, Shaw can take no more: after a physical altercation with a group of racist bullies, he realizes that his power against such bigotry lies in his ability to communicate both the ills of prejudice and ways to overcome the ignorance that gives rise to it.

The parallel Shaw draws between the overt bigotry he battles against, and the inner complications of his own emotional situation, is carefully balanced. For Butcher to have successfully woven three important themes together in such a short novel is impressive; in only 107 pages, she gives us a meaningful explication of the anguish Shaw feels, and how exorcising his inner demons not only frees him but makes him powerful on behalf of others.

Boy Meets Dog: A Word Game Adventure (2013), by Valerie Wyatt

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Illustrated by Dave Whamond

Wyatt-BoyWhen I was in elementary school, our teacher would reward us for efficient work habits by giving out pages with fun, topical challenges: for Language Arts, these included word searches, crosswords, and—my favourite—word ladders. Valerie Wyatt’s Boy Meets Dog is a fabulous compendium of word ladders—short and long—each translating one word into another associated word. Thus a “cat becomes a dog,” “a house might become a mouse, and then a moose,” “tiny may become huge,” and “rain can change to snow.” The ladders range in length from 1 change (toy to boy) to as many as 9 changes (safe to whew). Together, the ladders tell a simple story of a toy becoming a boy, and his cat becoming a dog. The two travel through a childish adventure, short ladders to long and back again to the simple retransformation of the boy back to a toy: “But a dog is too loyal to change.”

More than just a story, Boy Meets Dog is, as advertised, an adventure in words. Children will love the excitement encouraged by Dave Whamond’s lively illustrations, and gratified by the fun and interesting language tricks they learn.

September 17 (2014), by Amanda West Lewis

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.4.

Lewis-Sept 17On September 17, 1940, the City of Benares steamship was sunk by a German U-boat while crossing the Atlantic to Canada. The 406 passengers included 90 British children who were sent by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), the wartime evacuee program that Kit Pearson writes of so poignantly in her Guests of War trilogy (1991-94). Of those passengers, only 158 survived: only 7 of these were evacuees. This disaster ultimately led to the cessation of CORB. September 17 tells the story of the City of Benares sinking from the point of view of a number of the passengers.

I found the story difficult to engage with initially, not because of any fault in the writing, but because I already knew the fate of the ship. Like the Titanic, the City of Benares sank in less than an hour, so understandably the actual incident is not the focus of the story. In the opening chapters—titled by date, and alternating between characters—we meet a number of the evacuees, as well as a mother and her children who are paid passengers. We learn of their goals, their anxieties, the hope they have of safety in Canada, the homesickness some of the children experience. We follow them through the official process and the waiting while mines are cleared from the harbour to provide safe passage. On board, we experience the excitement of the novelty of travel on a luxury liner. Slowly, trepidation recedes into the background as our interest in the characters develops. In the end, as we know would happen, not all of the characters remain; those who do, though (adults and children) experience the horrors of shipwreck in icy waters and reveal the strength needed to survive them. The night after the attack, we are devastated by the loss of life, but relieved when the lifeboats are found: all but one. Lifeboat 12 is missed in the search; the 46 men and boys on board are finally found 8 days later, starving, dehydrated, and clinging to life; we breathe a sigh of relief when Ken waves his shirt and those in Lifeboat 12 know they have been found. While we mourn for all the lives that were lost, the fine balance of emotions in September 17 does not ultimately leave us devastated.

Amanda West Lewis has achieved what I initially thought unachievable: she has created a children’s novel that tells of harrowing loss, yet pulls readers into the heart of the event and leaves us with a feeling not only of sorrow, but also of community and love.