Isobel’s Stanley Cup (2018), by Kristin Butcher

That the basic plot of Isobel’s Stanley Cup is predictable does not take away from the rush of happiness we experience when Isobel helps save the day. So what is it, then, that raises this common story of girl-impersonates-boy-and-succeeds to a new level? I’m going to go with Kristin Butcher’s ability with character. I have always loved her young adult fiction, especially Truths I Learned from Sam (2013), and without exception it is her characters who pull me into the stories and hold me there, caught up in their lives until the end of the novel, often longer. With a chapter book such as Isobel’s Stanley Cup, of course, we do not have as long an engagement with the story, yet even with only 84 pages to build the connection, we cheer as loudly as any hockey fans when nine-year-old Isobel Harkness helps her brothers win against the team of local hockey bullies.

The story is set in 1893, the year after Lord Stanley, Governor-General of Canada, created the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup award, now the famous Stanley Cup. The award was created, we are told, at the instigation of his children—including his own daughter Isobel—who were all avid hockey fans. Isobel Harkness idolizes Isobel Stanley as an example of girls who have broken through the ice ceiling, and promises herself and her family that times are changing and that she will be a part of it. In a brief meeting with her hero, our Isobel learns a basic truth of life for smaller people: if you can’t be physically large and strong, be fast, or smart, or agile, or… whatever it takes. In hockey, Isobel is told, fast is the way to go.

In imitation of Lord Stanley’s award, the Harkness siblings—Isobel and her five older brothers—plan their own challenge amongst the local teams, hoping adult-referred games will discourage cheating and bullying. Isobel, who cannot contribute on the ice, is tasked with finding the prize, which turns out to be an old silver bowl that mother attaches to a base of wooden blocks: Isobel’s Stanley Cup. Faithful to the trope, two players are injured out of the final game, and for her brothers to have a chance, Isobel must play, dressed in her brother Billy’s clothes. Her speed, agility, and deep understanding of hockey techniques—gained through weeks of “coaching” her brothers in their practices—enable her to make the final assist, her brother Freddie the final goal, to win the challenge.

At first the Harkness family appears to be the stereotypic, patriarchal Victorian family, with father laying down the law regarding his daughter’s activities, mother supporting him, and the boys living an entitled life of masculine freedom. This is belied, though, by the obvious fairness and affection amongst the family members; by Isobel’s brothers’ willingness to help her circumvent parental authority and join them on the ice; by her mother’s encouragement of skating—if not hockey; and finally by her father’s ability to admit when he is wrong. These very believably drawn characters work together to give us a story that highlights the strength of a young Victorian girl making the smallest of cracks in that ceiling of discrimination. Although Isobel’s individual triumph is played out on a small, flooded field, her determination to follow in the footsteps of Isobel Stanley and other women who were creating a space for women in sports, transcends her historical moment: young readers of all genders will identify fully with her need to prove herself and her inner strength to do so.


Isobel Stanley (in white) and friends, playing hockey in Ottawa c1890 (image held by Library and Archives Canada). This is purportedly the first photo of women playing hockey in Canada; it is included in the historical information at the back of Isobel’s Stanley Cup.

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Jane of Lantern Hill (1936), by L.M. Montgomery

Jane of Lantern Hill is one of L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known works, but it was always one of my favourites. Rereading it as an adult, though, I could not help but notice that almost all of the tropes pervasive in Montgomery’s works seem to have found their way into this volume. I suppose, as Montgomery’s last novel, it was bound to be somewhat repetitive, but it caused me to question what it was about Montgomery’s work as a whole that I liked so much as a child.

The conclusion I arrived at was that I essentially liked the emphasis in the novels on the transformative and restorative power of nature, coupled with the sense of female power derived from domestic abilities. While these characteristics are found in other of Montgomery’s novels (one could create a rich matrix of tropes and volumes—in fact it is likely that someone has), they form the underlying themes of Jane of Lantern Hill.

The story is premised on a stereotypic—and metaphoric—contrast between restrictive urban life (at 60 Gay Street in Toronto) and rural freedom (in the cottage on Lantern Hill on Prince Edward Island). Jane Victoria Stuart—Jane to her mother and Victoria to the rest of her relatives—lives a life repressed by her overbearing, embittered grandmother; her misery is compounded by the derision cast at her by her uncles, aunts, and cousin Phyllis. That she is doted on by her mother does not mitigate her position, as her mother, Robin, disgraced herself by marrying Jane’s father against the family’s wishes, and only partially redeemed herself by leaving him when Jane was three. The story opens as Jane discovers that her father, whom she has been told is dead, wants her to join him in her birthplace—Prince Edward Island—for the summer.

A series of Montgomerian serenditpities transform Jane’s initial anger at the father who could possibly hurt her gentle loving mother into the soulmate that she has been longing for. A journalist and a poet, her father awakens in her life the beauty that Jane had always felt was hiding somewhere in the world—but was certainly absent from 60 Gay Street. The story of course, ends happily, with the little family reunited in their mutual forgiveness. That is not what interests me most as an adult reader, though, and not really what captivated me as a child.

What I found and find most interesting is young Jane’s ultimate arrival at a place of strength and self-assurance surpassing that of either of her parents. While Andrew Stuart brings joy and beauty to Jane’s life, he is also largely responsible for the mess that is his marriage. Jane’s mother is little more than a stereotype: the quintessential sheltered young rich girl who attempts to break free but is ultimately not strong enough.

While Robin is merely weak, Andrew’s fault lies in trusting the older sister that he loves, and believing unequivocally in her goodness. It takes Jane a while to figure out that her Aunt Irene’s charitable interventions and attempts to help little Jane play house are in fact her way of controlling her brother, of being the only woman who matters to him. Slowly (she is after all only 11), Jane begins to realize that in playing this same game 10 years earlier, Aunt Irene was largely responsible for the rift between her parents. She recognizes as well, though, that her grandmother’s matriarchal control, her mother’s weakness, and her father’s obliviousness all contributed in no uncertain way.

Intelligent and energetic, Jane is a natural homemaker, with an inner strength that has helped her survive her grandmother and life at 60 Gay Street. She brings this strength to Prince Edward Island, and it underpins her relationships with all she encounters. Her domestic activities give her the self-confidence to begin to stand up for herself in a way that was not permitted in Toronto. Slowly as she grows in self-assurance, she becomes able to see more clearly the machinations of the adults in her life, and in some ways to steel herself against them.

Montgomery presents Jane’s strength and youthful immaturity together in a believable balance, and her slow growth towards a more adult understanding of her parents’ relationship is entirely believable. As a reader, I wanted fairly early on to scream out at Jane’s mother: “Oh, for goodness sake, grow a backbone!” Late in the story, when Jane’s mother comments (whines) that Irene  “kept pushing us apart… here a little… there a little… I was helpless,” Jane’s internal response is: “Not if you had had just a wee bit of backbone, Mummy” (205). I almost cheered for our Jane.

The tension in the story is very much between Jane and her female relatives, not between women and patriarchy. Where Jane’s mother was unable to stand up for herself, Jane does not suffer from the same weakness. One gets the feeling that in end the little threesome will survive as a family not because the parents are actually better people—although they have both realized how they were manipulated—but because Jane will not allow them to be so easily duped again.

Bellamy and the Brute (2017), by Alicia Michaels

In Bellamy and the Brute, a popular, well-off high school senior is punished for his arrogant and entitled behaviour. Cursed by a disfiguring disease, he retreats into solitude in the upper floor of his family mansion. Enter Bellamy, who is hired as a summer babysitter for his younger siblings. Expressed this way, you can see how Alicia Michaels’s novel is in fact a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even if the title weren’t so suggestive. But I have to admit that I had to actually think about the underlying teen-angst portion of the tale in order to draw the comparison. The story is so much more interesting than this superficial description leads one to believe, containing as it does murder, ghosts, political corruption, and familial conflict.

FBI Camilla Vasquez is on administrative leave pending a psychological evaluation. Her younger sister, Isabella, had been found dead in a hotel room, but Camilla refuses to believe it was suicide as claimed. It doesn’t surprise us when her brakes mysteriously fail and her car plunges over an embankment. It does surprise us when her spirit looks down on her dead body, takes the hand of her sister, and walks away from the accident. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was already so engaged with Camilla as an intelligent protagonist that I was shocked. I had forgotten that I was still reading the prologue. And Camilla, it turns out, is not the protagonist.

Bellamy McGuire is shunned by her schoolmates, teased because of both her scholarly aptitude and her father’s eccentricities. In the two years since his wife’s death Nate McGuire has been seeing ghosts, and the townsfolk consider him deranged, if not actually dangerous. This impacts the income from the family bookstore, so Bellamy takes a summer job as a babysitter for the Baldwin family to help out. Their generosity is curtailed by only one demand: do not go up to the third floor of the house.

Cue mysterious music…

It should be corny, but it isn’t. When Bellamy first sees the ghosts of Camilla and Isabella, she is (not surprisingly) terrified; the plot thickens when she discovers that Tate Baldwin, the disfigured eldest son of the house, can see them too. This revelation (again not surprisingly) draws the two together in a complicated relationship of antagonism mixed with empathy. As Bellamy and Tate begin to work together to unravel the mysterious connections between Tate’s illness and the ghosts’ demand of justice, their investigations lead them deep into a web of corruption ultimately implicates even members of Tate’s family.

Part of what makes this novel so successful is that readers really don’t know the extent of Tate’s family’s involvement in the plot that the two are uncovering. Even when we begin to see what really is going on, we are uncertain how various characters will respond; this unpredictability is an essential component of an effective mystery. As the story progresses, numerous mystery novel tropes can be easily envisioned, and we are not certain which direction Michaels will be taking us. To her credit, her choices do not cater to our narrative expectations.

Continuing this trend of upsetting our predictions, just when we think the threat is gone—the corruption is revealed and the perpetrators headed towards justice—Bellamy and Tate’s lives are knocked sideways by the almost-forgotten high school bullying that landed Tate in his mess in the first place. While the adult world of political corruption is presented as a more serious threat to life, the conflict between Tate and his ex-friend Lincoln has more tragic results. Again, Michaels does not give clues to where she is going to take us; we really believe that bad things can happen to good people. The two separate narratives parallel each other effectively; the explicit message in both is that we are all ultimately responsible for all of our choices, not only our actions. In spite of the rollercoaster ride, karma ultimately plays a strong role in this very griping mystery novel.

The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.