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.

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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.

Jump Cut (2012), by Ted Staunton

Jump Cut is one of the Seven series, which advertises itself as “The Seven Series: 7 grandsons; 7 journeys; 7 amazing authors; 1 amazing series. Read one: Read them all.” The website listed as “www.sevenseries.com” is wrong; when I began this review, it took me to a site that seemed to be the setup for a movie version of the books; now it takes one to “www.sevenseriestv.com,” which seems to be a Nigerian film site… very odd. Regardless, the official website is here.

I was sent an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) of one of the other novels, Devil’s Pass, by Sigmund Brouwer, by Resource Links online magazine in the summer, and loved it. I was thus really excited when my daughter brought three others home as soon as they came out in October (her school librarian is really on top of things).  I had been advised by another children’s literature scholar whom I respect that the series is “very uneven,” but I of course wanted to read them all myself, regardless. My friend didn’t mention Staunton’s, so I did dive into it unprejudiced by other’s opinions. I was not, however, as thrilled with it as with Devil’s Pass.

The premise of the series is that David McLean dies, leaving seven grandsons of five daughters all bereft, for, from all accounts, McLean was am amazing man and a fabulous grandpa. In his will, he leaves each of his grandson’s with a task that will send them on some sort of adventure. Early in each story (I surmise… certainly in the two I have read), we glean that each of the adventures was specifically chosen not only to satisfy some emotional, historical need of the grandfather, but to help each grandson grow into manhood through life lessons that he would not otherwise have access to. The set up is not only clever, but carefully and artfully constructed so that it works both narratively and emotionally: we really like what David McLean has done for his grandsons, and our appreciation reflects also their love for their grandfather and thus their willingness to do seemingly odd things to achieve the goals he sets out for them. In Devil’s Pass, Webb ends up trekking in the northern wastes, a adventure replete with red-neck bullying and the requisite grizzly bear—still, it does not sink as far into stereotype as this sounds; in Jump Cut, budding cameraman Spencer’s task is to film himself kissing the cheek of an old Hollywood flame, “Gloria Lorraine,” his grandfather’s youthful heartthrob. The story is, of course, far more complex than this, and Spencer learns the truth along with the reader. He also learns some lessons about what constitutes worthy content in both film and reality, a lesson I would have thought he had a better handle on at the outset. This is perhaps the greatest failing of the novel: Spencer misses so many filmic opportunities. I would have though that a keen teenaged boy with a new video camera would be more interested in actually shooting footage, in fact the trope is of course how annoying a newbie with a camera can be… Spencer consistently misses shots that are not only interesting, but essential to the task he has set himself—of Gloria has set him—on: filming her journey back to her roots. It becomes annoying. The behaviour, too, of the “kidnapped” gang member seems less authentic than the social threats expressed so effectively in Devil’s Pass: Jump Cut reads like a fiction—fun, interesting, but no actually something that might ever happen this way. Still, it was interesting enough for me to want to read Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, the story of Spencer’s younger brother, “Bunny,” whose seemingly simple assignment is to get a tattoo…

Julie (1985), by Cora Taylor

Cora Taylor’s first novel is an engaging look at the life of a young girl with paranormal abilities. The story is told mostly in flashback, the ten-year-old Julie’s memories of how she had learned to hide her gift, her visions of the past and future.  Through the course of the story, Julie learns what the wise woman of the village, Granny Goderich, tells her she will: “there comes a time when we have to act […] You have to decide, and that’s when the gift can be terrible. Wonderful and terrible.  […] You have to learn when … you have to be strong” (52).  Julie learns her own strength, and moves forward into her future (we are left to surmise) full of the power of her gift and the knowledge of how to use it.