A Hole in My Heart (2014), by Rie Charles

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 19.5.


Nora will never be happy again. Her mother has recently died, and her father has moved her to Vancouver to be closer to her older sisters, who are studying nursing at St. Paul’s Hospital. The year is 1960, and Rie Charles has nailed the historical moment. My mother graduated from Pen High in 1957, and from St. Paul’s nursing program in 1960. She taught me the “special tight corners and pulling the bottom sheet so hard your fingers almost fall off” (18) that St. Paul’s demanded of their students (my husband still teases me about them…). Like Nora, I was condemned to wear “saddle shoes,” and hated every minute of it, standing out from other students who had more graceful shoes or cooler runners. The foods Nora’s family eats, the clothes they wear, the names of classes at school, the level or responsibility 12-year-old Nora is given babysitting: these all bring back vivid memories. Adults will recognize the historical accuracy, but it is harder to convey the 1960s ethos to young readers today. Charles does a fairly good job, but occasionally over-explains things to the reader. For example, Nora’s cousin Lizzy – in Vancouver for open heart surgery – gushes to Nora when they wake up one morning: “I bet that’s Mum making her special applesauce to go with her usual at-home Sunday morning pancakes” (112). The girls have grown up together in Penticton, and are best friends as well as cousins: Nora would already know intimately her Aunt Mary’s special Sunday breakfast. Nora’s father tells her that he and Nora’s mother “both grew up just up the road from Penticton, in Summerland” (98), but anyone from the Okanagan (which Nora of course was) would know where Summerland is. Other things, too, like the complete elision of the Catholicism of St. Paul’s, or Nora checking the front step for milk in the evening rather than the morning, sit awkwardly with Charles’s poignant presentation of the internal struggles Nora goes through as her family grieves for their mother and worries about Lizzie’s upcoming surgery for Tetralogy of Fallot (“blue baby” syndrome), an experimental procedure at the time.

In the late 1950s, St. Paul’s was a significant player in the nascent field of pulmonary surgery research, one of the few non-university hospitals with a cardiac catheterization lab. As such, St. Paul’s was the site of a number of successful open-heart surgeries, the first performed in 1960 on a 12-year-old girl from Kelowna. It is not clear whether or not this historical moment was the impetus for Charles’s plot. Being able to link such an emotionally successful story with an actual historical incident would increase the power of the narrative, but there are almost certainly social or legal implications in telling the story of someone who is still living… Still, the parallels are real (for example, Lizzie is not the first such patient) and lend veracity to the overall narrative. Nora and Lizzie share a special bond, a friendship that helps them both to weather the uncertainty of Lizzie’s operation at a time when there was a real recognition that she could as easily die as live. This is the strength of A Hole in My Heart: the human players in this drama are honestly drawn and emotionally consistent. Despite the uneven historicity, the difficulties and ultimate success of Nora’s navigating her challenging, constantly changing adolescence make this novel well worth reading.

Millhouse (2014), by Natale Ghent

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 19.5.

Ghent-MillhouseMillhouse tells the story of a naked guinea pig, caught in a life he did not choose, unappreciated by those around him, teased for being a misfit. Millhouse used to have a warm and welcoming home with a celebrated actor, but after Sir Roderick’s death, he ended up in a dusty, dreary pet shop. He yearned to return to his old life, to satisfy his thespian aspirations, to be appreciated again. The premise seems promising to those who appreciate stories of anthropomorphized animals, and can sympathize with Millhouse’s situation. Millhouse is an interesting character, and his over-dramatizing of his life is highly entertaining and appropriate to his self-conception as an actor. He is certainly the strongest character in the story; the other characters (even the assortment of animals in the shop) are similarly hyperbolic, and thus overtly stereotypic. There are the other, beautiful guinea pigs who deride Millhouse for his appearance, the crafty ferret who considers him (but not apparently the other animals) as a potential meal, the constantly reproduced baby wild mice who come to listen to Millhouse perform Shakespeare. The usual antics occur, with the escape-artist ferret attacking Millhouse, with Millhouse becoming depressed by the insinuation that the is intended only for scientific experiments, by Millhouse’s attempted escape to see Sir Peter Ustinov perform, and the final heart-warming conclusion that finally places him is a home. One problem I see is that Millhouse (like the ferret, but not the other animals) can easily escape his cage, yet doesn’t think to leave until the end. Another troubling element is that Millhouse is the only character with a name, rather like Franklin in the children’s cartoon (equally problematic in terms of children’s ability to identify with any of the supporting cast). Overall, the characters and story seem to limp along, either predictably or irrelevantly.

By far the best aspect of Millhouse is the author’s own illustrations, which in and of themselves justify the creation of a story to accompany them. Millhouse’s dramatic expressions, the ferret’s malicious sneers, the wild mouse Sargent’s military nobility, the adorable mice babies… Perhaps Natale Ghent’s unquestionable artistic ability would be better used in producing graphic novels for young readers; in Millhouse, she has created an almost-sufficient story in just the illustrations.

Judy Brown Memorial Scholarship

So, this is not a review… but for all of you in the Lower Mainland of BC, there is a book sale for a great cause coming up. Judy was a truly wonderful person, whose academic specialties aligned with mine (Canadian Studies and Children’s Literature); I am proud to have known her. I’ll be there as the doors open on Wednesday…

Fundraising Book Sale for The Judy Brown Memorial Scholarship in Canadian Literature

9:30 am – 4:00 pm
Wed. Jan 28, Thurs Jan 29, Tues. Feb 3, Wed. Feb 4

All the books in this sale come from the extensive personal library of Judy Brown.  Judy’s collection is rich in many areas, especially Canadian Studies and the humanities.  Come to the sale! Well-loved books here! And books as new!   Find books for yourself or maybe that perfect gift book.  Fiction, literature, critical studies, language, biography, history, women’s studies, politics, philosophy, travel, religion, children’s books and critical works on children’s literature, …and more.

Because there are so many books, we anticipate that we may not have room to get all of them out on sale in only two days—so we have planned a second sale in the first week of February, just in case.  Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books!   Lots of bargains for all kinds of booklovers! Come early!

If you can’t attend the book sale and would like to take this opportunity to make a gift to the Judy Brown Memorial Scholarship in Canadian Literature, here are various options for you to make a gift.

Ways to give:

Through the English Department website entry, with information about Judy herself, and the establishing of the scholarship:



By cheque:

Attention: UBC Annual Giving

500 – 5950 University Blvd. Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z3

Note: Make the cheque payable to “University of British Columbia” and indicate on the memo line “Judy Brown Scholarship”.

By Phone (Credit Card):

Contact: UBC Annual Giving

Tel: 604.827.4111 or 1.877.717.4483

If you have further questions, please contact Betty Yan at 604-827-0331 or betty.yan@ubc.ca.

About Judy

Judy Brown was beloved by generations of students at UBC, and her inspired teaching won her multiple awards, including a 3M Fellowship, Canada’s highest award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.  By establishing this scholarship, we will honour Judy’s many contributions to UBC, her educational leadership, and in particular her dedication to English undergraduates studying Canadian literature.  The scholarship will be offered to a student completing third year, for the best essay on Canadian literature submitted for a course in the Department of English.


With thanks to all, from Judy’s sisters, Jackie, Barb and Caroline, and from her colleagues in the English Department.

The Journal (2015), by Lois Donovan

It isn’t so often any more that when I finish a book, my mind stays in the story, but Lois Donovan’s The Journal pulled me in completely and kept me there. The power of the story over me might be because I am so interested in the historical moment that young Kami Anderson slips into, but I think that Donovan’s attention to historical detail and balanced inclusion of social issues have more to do with it…

It is hard to describe this book without revealing the plot, which I usually avoid, so please bear with me; there are spoilers here, unfortunately.

Donovan - Journal

Japanese-Canadian Kami Anderson is holding up rather well to having her life turned upside-down. She hasn’t seen her father for over two years, but her mother—renowned urban designer, Keiko Kishida—is now moving her back to her father’s family home in Edmonton, where the whole family had lived when Kami was younger. When 13-year-old Kami finds a dusty journal at the bottom of one of her father’s boxes of papers, she is transported back to a New Year’s Eve party in 1929 Edmonton. Her experience seems a lucid dream: she sneaks down the staircase to watch the revellers, and overhears a comment about “diphtheria up north at the Little River Settlement” (26), and a man with the unlikely name of “Wop” who is going to fly serum up to the afflicted. Kami recognizes the unique name from a photo she found in her father’s box, but she—like most readers, I would guess—knows nothing about this fascinating character in Canadian history.

Returned abruptly to her present, Kami heads to the library, and finds the newspaper article that had been taped into young Helen Mitchell’s journal: the article that triggered her slipping through time. Naturally, she begins to read…

She finds herself again in the Mitchell house, but this time Helen is home: “Mom!” [she] yelled. “There’s a Chinese in our house!” (35). Kami immediately realizes that 1929 Edmonton is not only different in regards to clothing and cars. Her ethnicity, more than her jeans and hoodie and her ability to stand up for herself, mark her as alien. Not really knowing what to do with this strange creature, the relatively progressive Mrs. Mitchell sends Kami to school with Helen. Things do not go well. Kami ends up in front of the magistrate, and is shocked to find—in this obviously patriarchal society—that the magistrate is a woman: “The Emily Murphy” (66). Here is a name Kami recognizes from her schooling, and Magistrate Murphy is surprised and amazed when Kami rattles off details about her life. Kami find herself caught up in the political attitudes of the time, and is troubled by Emily Murphy’s complicated position as both a feminist and (by our standards) a racist.

For those who don’t know—including, I would hazard to guess, most middle-school readers—Emily Murphy was one of the “Famous Five,” a group of five Alberta female activists and authors who pushed through changes to the BNA Act pertaining to women. The political battle began when Emily Murphy became the first female magistrate in the British Empire in 1916; many of her rulings were challenged because only men were legally “persons” by Canadian law. On 18 October 1929, the battle was won; the legal definition of “persons” was amended to include women. But political equality was not extended to the Japanese. Or Chinese. Or South Asians. Or…

Kami’s story moves back and forth between these fascinating moments in Canada’s history and her own complicated life in 2004 Edmonton. In both periods, she contends with issues that readers will recognize: racism, patriarchy, school bullying, teen social insecurities, and complicated family dynamics. Donovan’s palimpsest of Kami’s modern life over the historical background of her society is beautifully constructed. Kami’s insecurities and strengths help readers to identify with her, and agree with her final understanding that “”No one is perfect. Not even the great Emily Murphy of the famous Keiko Kishida” (186).

But what of Wop May? The his story reminds readers of how dangerous the world could be in 1929, and of how many unassumingly heroic men and women helped to create our country’s ethos. The selflessness and bravery he exhibited are as much a part of who we are as Canadians as are the battles for equal rights that began with activists such as Emily Murphy. There is so much for our students to learn these days, that some of what is important slips out of the lessons. Emily Murphy and the monumental achievements of the Famous Five are likely to remain a part of our cultural story (the “Persons Case” is taught in high school), but we need to remember the Wop Mays as well: books like The Journal will go a long way to ensuring that the important stories are told.