Convictions (2016), by Judith Silverthorne

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 22.1.

Another obvious contender for the 2017 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People, in my estimation. I really wish I were a juror again this year, as I have been in the past, as there are some really good historical novels for young readers out there this year.

Convictions (2016)

silverthorne-convictionsIt is 1842. Jennie’s family is starving, so she takes some mouldy oats from a milliner’s garbage. For that, she is convicted of theft and sentenced to 7 years transportation to the penal colony of Australia. She is one of 235 female convicts, including pregnant women and women with young children. Jennie is fourteen when she boards the convict ship Emily Anne; the youngest prisoner is ten-year-old Alice.

Judith Silverthorne’s account of Jennie’s life on board the Emily Anne is convincingly harsh; there is very little evasion of the horrors of the women’s lives at the hands of uncaring or even abusive guards. What helps Jennie survive are the relationships the women forge in their shared hardship. As Jennie discovers the gamut of “crimes” the women have been sentenced for, she comes to appreciate her fellow prisoners’ differences. Learned prejudices against the “doxies” Lizzie and Fanny, or the alcoholic Dottie, or the Irish-Catholic Kate, are eventually subsumed in the need to band together to survive the physical and psychological trauma of their situation. Seasickness and poor rations threaten their health. Crowded into small shared bunks or hammocks, they are afflicted by rodents, lice, and fleas. Women and children, most used to living simply but honorably, are treated like animals by the poorly paid crew and guards.

Not all the guards are as vile as “Red Bull” Chilcott, whose lecherous behaviour threatens the sexually innocent among the prisoners, and whose sexual appetites mark him as a target for Fanny’s manipulations on behalf of her friends. Some of the guards are cruel but not abusive, and some appear more sympathetic towards the women’s plight. We see a subtle connection growing between Jennie and a young crew-member, Nate, and when the ship is wrecked on a reef near Tenerife, we are not surprised that the intelligent Nate is instrumental in saving a small number of crew and prisoners.

Silverthorne does not stray from her excellent historical representation even in the romance that is beginning to grow between Jennie and Nate. The women’s ultimate fate after being saved by a passing Scottish vessel—whose Captain and crew are welcoming neither to the English nor to women—is logically supportable in terms of the political, financial, and cultural reality Silverthorne is recreating. Nate expresses his hope that his and Jennie’s lives will follow a similar path, and we are shown a narrative direction in which that could be true; but at the close of the novel, we are left with as much uncertainly as Jennie and the other survivors. As readers, we are convinced of the historical truth reflected in Convictions; Jennie’s story remains in our minds, her future pondered, long after the last page is read.

When Morning Comes (2016), by Arushi Raina

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 22.2.

Having been a juror for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People for the past two years (it is a two-year appointment), I have to say that When Morning Comes stands a very good chance of being the winner for 2017. That cannot, of course, be reflected in my review for Resource Links, but I wanted to add that opinion to my appreciation of Raina’s excellent novel.

When Morning Comes (2016)

raina-when-morning-comesI am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was

I am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was Cape Town (2012), by Brenda Hammond; then Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters; and now When Morning Comes, by Arushi Raina. They just keep getting better. Raina’s complex characterization and intricate plot kept me enthralled from my first meeting of Zanele and Jack and Meena through to the devastatingly inevitable conclusion. Raina does not capitulate to simplistic narrative expectations of some current YA genres, wherein the teen protagonists rise above the socio-political powers against which they struggle and succeed; this is perhaps because the novel is based on historical events, but it is nonetheless admirably handled. Raina’s characters are young: inexperienced yet passionate, afraid yet determined. They behave immaturely under pressure. They make mistakes. They—and more importantly those around them—suffer for those mistakes. And so they learn, but that learning sometimes comes too late. The bravery of some characters seems at times almost excessive, but it is always believable.

The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1976. We meet Zanele as she and her friends attempt to bomb a power station. The attempt fails; two of her friends are arrested; Zanele escapes. Theirs is but a small act of terrorism aimed at helping to overthrow the apartheid government. As the novel progresses, Zanele’s life becomes inextricably entwined with that of Jack, a naïve white boy who is entranced by Zanele; Meena, daughter of a South Asian shopkeeper who is being extorted by a local gang; and Thabo, one of the gang members and Zanele’s childhood friend. The intricate connections Raina constructs in her narrative all lead inexorably toward the tragedy that erupted on June 16th, 1976. The Soweto Uprising is infamous in South African history for the police brutality used against the 15,000 students in the protest that quickly became a riot. Raina’s novel traces the path from the government imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, through the Soweto high school students’ growing dissatisfaction, to their cohesive plan of action. The short “historical intro”—significantly at the back of the novel—informs the reader of the real historical moment, but the novel itself is a far stronger exposition of the students’ anger and power than any historical commentary could be.

Young Man With Camera (2015), by Emil Sher

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 21.3.

Young Man With Camera was short-listed for the 2016 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award.

Young Man With Camera

Sher - Camera

As hard as he tries not to, T–  stands out from his classmates. As a child, an accident resulted in extensive burn marks to his face and neck; since then, he has been bullied mercilessly by Ryan and his group of followers, whom T–  and his friend Sean label “Joined at the Hip.” T–’s parents had tried all sorts of activities to help T–, but the one that stuck was photography. He sees the world through his camera lens, finding beauty in small details that others see as unimportant, or in people whom others see as useless. This is how T– meets Lucy, a homeless woman with an interesting vision of her world. T–’s growing affection for the ostracized Lucy is complicated by the increasingly violent bullying of Ryan and his cronies, ultimately leading to a horrific incident that changes T–’s life forever.

It is hard to know how to approach Young Man With Camera, for a number of reasons. For one, the narrative voice is inconsistent. T–  speaks in metaphor, with a poetic vision of his world that plays with language and image in the way a highly intelligent young adult might; at the same time, though, 13-year-old T–  does not know what irony or behoove mean, and has to ask the teacher he idolizes, Ms. Karamath.

Ms. Karamath introduces him to the work of famous photographer Diane Arbus, whose pictures influence his vision. This connection between the readers’ world and the narrative world is a strength; the development of T–’s artistic ability alongside the reader’s developing understanding of T–  as a person is very effectively executed and almost sufficiently mitigates other problems in characterization.

When T– has photographic evidence of Joined at the Hip’s murderous attack on Lucy, he considers taking the photos to Ms. Karamath, the only adult he trusts. Ultimately, for reasons that are explicit but not convincing, he does not do so, and this is another issue I have with the story. Regardless of the depth of fear he has of Joined at the Hip—T– they poisoned Sean’s dog, Watson, and threatened worse to Sean—is it realistic that T–  would tell no one? Granted, the adults in his life have not been entirely supportive, but again, this is an issue. All the adults we meet, including T–’s mother and father, believe Ryan’s lies and consider (what they interpret as) T–’s criminally anti-social behaviour to be an understandable result of his childhood injury. No one ever thinks to address the issues T–  actually might have. If they are aware of the relationship between his accident and his (presumed) behaviour, why then is there no indication of interventions on his behalf? That question aside, all of his actions could also be interpreted in less damning ways. The notion of T–  having a persecution complex, projecting his abuse at the hands of Joined at the Hip onto others around him, I could understand as a narrative device, but that doesn’t appear to be what is going on. Despite his use of language, T–’s tale is not a metaphor: to have the entire adult world—even ultimately Ms. Karamath—unable to see what is going on, to the extent that T– ends up serving a seven-month incarceration, seems problematically unrealistic.

The intensity of Ryan’s persecution I can accept, as it is presented as excessive even for a typical bullying situation, but when Ryan is found guilty of assault on a member of his own gang, there is no reassessment of T–’s situation at all. Having years of experience dealing with the Canadian school system, including special needs assessments and psycho-educational evaluations, I find it very hard to believe in T–’s journey, in the choices he makes, or the responses of those around him.

Small Bones (2015), by Vicki Grant

Grant - Small BonesSmall Bones is part of Orca Publishers Secrets series, a parallel series to Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to accomplish in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. The premise of Secrets is that seven self-proclaimed “sisters”—orphans in the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls in Hope, Ontario—are sent out into the world when the orphanage burns down. Each of the “sisters” is given $138 by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton, along with often the most vague information about their backgrounds, providing tenuous paths for them to take towards their futures.

In Small Bones, timid, highly imaginative Dot feels like she has been abandoned by Mrs. Hazelton, sent out into a harsh, unwelcoming world when she would rather stay in the comfort of their familiar small town, however socially dead an end that might be. Dot’s insecurity is somewhat assuaged by the seeming simplicity of the clue to her identity, for the new-born Dot had “arrived wrapped in an expensive coat complete with the store label and the initials of the man who owned it” (20), along with an engraved silver mustard spoon hidden in its pocket. Dot travels down to the fictional Buckminster by train, only to discover—unsurprisingly, or we would have little plot—that the store, Howell’s of Buckminster, closed in 1944, three years before Dot had been born. Dot has a birth date: July 8th, 1947, but not even verification of the place.

After a brief prologue set in 1947, the story begins in media res, with Dot on the train, intimidated by a young man who winks at her: “A real wink. Not a there’s-a-little-something-in-my-eye type of flutter … a genuine hey-baby-how’s-it-going wink” (6). The whys and the wherefores of Dot being on the train are revealed in flashback. Again unsurprisingly, Eddie turns out to be the love interest in the story, insinuating himself effortlessly into Dot’s life. Small Bones, more than any of the other of the Secrets series (Innocence perhaps excepted), is centred on the romance; the search for Dot’s parentage slips into the background of her desire to help Eddie produce a good story for the newspaper. As she builds her knowledge of what happened in Buckminster on July 8th, 1947, Dot admits

I wanted to find my parents. I wanted to find out who I was, where I came from, all that stuff. But that was only part of it now and not even the best part.

I was in it now mostly for other reasons. The way Eddie’s face kind of lit up when I mentioned something he hadn’t thought of yet. The way we didn’t even have to look at each other to know we were both thinking the same thing. The way we could sit happily for hours… (168)

Initially in her own interests, Dot maneuvers Eddie into researching the local legend behind the “Bye-Bye Baby party” held every July 8th in the woods near the resort where Dot has found work. There is no question to the reader, once the legend is revealed, that it is real and that Dot is the baby who was spirited away that night. Part of the problem is that the reader really doesn’t’ change focus away from Dot’s mystery the way that she herself does. It’s rather difficult, then, to have patience with Dot continually failing to tell Eddie her own place in the story. Perhaps it is a little of a personal hang-up, but I really do not appreciate narratives founded on either intentional duplicitousness or characters making decisions that have no logical validity; Small Bones contains both. Eddie sees Dot dropped off at the train by Mrs. Welsh, her rich employer, whom he assumes is Dot’s mother. While we can understand why Dot initially sees no reason to dissuade him of this illusion, once she begins to establish a relationship with him, there seems to be no reason for the continued subterfuge. And once they start to try to determine the truth, and Dot’s overcoat and silver spoon become important evidence, her choices become not only ethically questionable but a narratively untenable weakness. This failure to reveal results in Dot’s outright lies to Eddie at the climax of the narrative. That is all works out in the end (again unsurprisingly) does not mitigate the annoyance the reader feels towards Dot’s choices throughout the story.

[spoiler follows]

Small Bones gives us is an almost unmitigatedly happy ending: Dot and Eddie’s relationship recovers from the lies and omissions; Dot’s father is discovered to not be Eddie’s father; and Dot’s mother sends a beautiful letter and meets her new-found daughter with hugs and tears at the end of the book. All in all, I think I prefer any of the other endings (again, Innocent excepted), where the secrets the seven sisters discover lead them into adulthood with a greater maturity and understanding, rather than just the security of love and family that Dot finds.