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 20.1.
Sigmund Brouwer certainly knows how to weave an intriguing mystery, and protagonist Jim Webb’s blend of hard-earned cynicism and innate compassion stand him in good stead as he unravels the secrets of his grandfather’s past. Tin Soldier is part of the second “Seven” series, which takes Webb and his six cousins on further adventures, this time self-imposed, to defend the reputation of the grandfather they all loved.
Spending the week between Christmas and New Years at their grandfather’s cabin, five of the seven cousins discover a World War II pistol, a hidden cache of fake identities and money in the wall of the cabin. The discovery sets wheels in motion, and Jim finds himself in Alabama talking to Ruby Gavin, who he met as part of his first adventure, Devil’s Pass (2012).
Tin Soldier, though, is only superficially about the mystery Webb solves; its most poignant impact comes from the lessons Webb learns. This may sound trite and clichéd, but Bouwer’s message of tolerance is not only apropos to our current sociopolitical situation, but a truth that each generation needs to learn for itself. Webb is introduced by Ruby to Vietnam War veteran Lee Knox who, she says, will be able to help determine why Webb’s grandfather had hidden two veterans’ ID cards; or, rather, two veteran’s ID cards, for while the names are different, the pictures are the same. Lee’s questions, weaving upwards through his personal contacts from the war, soon result in drastic consequences, and the two unlikely associates set out to find answers.
Webb carries serious anti-military baggage from abuse at the hands of his ex-step-father; Lee harbours deep racial anger from his experience as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Their common purpose only mostly overcomes their seeming antipathy, but they both recognize the similarities that bind them together more than their prejudices hold them apart. Webb’s previous abuse and subsequent life on the streets of Toronto help him to empathize with the trauma Lee has experienced through the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. His growing respect for Lee fosters a belief in Lee’s opinion that Webb’s generation have the power—like Lee’s in their time—to make a positive statement in the world: “Guy like you,” Lee asserted, “maybe you could come up with another song like ‘One Tin Soldier.” Make a difference, not just make money” (109). Brouwer provides a few lines of the song by the Canadian folk group Original Caste for his readers, and I wonder how many will seek out song—will get past the very 1970s folk feel and really listen to the meaningful words. Reading Tin Soldier I was struck with the similar pertinence of “The Fiddle and the Drum,” by a more well-known Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. “Fiddle and the Drum,” though, is a cappella, and would not lend itself to Webb’s transposing of the song from major to minor key, reinventing it for his own generation. Brouwer takes the issues of Webb’s parents’ generation and builds an analogy that readers will not only understand but feel. Webb—and in a lesser way Lee—learns that self-respect and forgiveness are key to letting go of anger. Racism, tolerance, compassion, self-respect, and the power of song resonate through the novel. In the end, as he performs his adaptation in a small club, we cheer for Webb as much as does his audience.