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.

Jackanapes, Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, and The Story of a Short Life (1895), by Juliana Horatia Ewing

In my other life, I work for the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) project, headed by Dr. Carole Gerson at Simon Fraser University.  The project aims to construct an online database of all Canadian women who published—in any genre, in any forum—before 1950.  CEWW is one of the seed projects for the larger database project, the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), run out of the University of Alberta, and headed by Dr. Susan Brown.

Connecting my love of early Canadian literature with my love of children’s literature, I have been reading through the children’s texts written by some of our authors, with the intent of sharing them—if only superficially—with others.  The first such text was The Bells on Finland Street, by Lyn Cook; this is the fourth.

Jackanapes, Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, and The Story of a Short Life (1895), by Juliana Horatia Ewing

Juliana Ewing was a well-known British children’s author, with an extensive bibliography. She falls onto my radar for having lived for two years in Canada (1867-1869). Elizabeth S. Tucker’s Leaves from Juliana Horatia Ewings “Canada Home” (1896) is part biographical, part autobiographical, and contains a number of photos of the author and her life in Canada. Given this connection, I thought I would read at least Jackanapes, one of her most successful children’s stories.
My copy of Jackanapes (published in 1895) is bound with two other of Ewing’s children’s books: Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot (1884), and The Story of a Short Life (1885). All three are unquestionably written as instructive moral tales, but where Jackanapes and to a lesser degree Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot retain the reader’s interest, The Story of a Short Life is tedious and we wish that young Leonard’s life had been shorter… or, more compassionately perhaps, that the author had not chosen to write about it. Leonard is a spoilt, demanding child who, when crippled by a fall from a cart, becomes even more spoilt and demanding. Despite the author’s intent of showing how he tries to live up to the family motto, Lœtus sorte mea (“Happy in my lot”), we spend the entire short text wishing that the adults around him practiced some of the logical moral discipline that Victorian children’s texts are generally known for. Instead, when after years as an annoying cripple, Leonard inexplicably succumbs to his injuries and dies, we are shown his parents later blessed with a new family, and who remember and honour the valiant young boy who strove so hard to be like the noble soldiers around him. But failed! Perhaps I should have stopped after Jackanapes and Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, which have similar morally intent, but are far more enjoyable to read.
Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot is an pleasant story of a young orphan who is taken in as a servant, strives to do well through honestly and hard work, and ultimately succeeds, inheriting his master’s dovecot and doves. The story achieves its goal of showing material gains resulting from moral behaviour, and is an engaging story at the same time. Its success lies both in the simplicity of the story and in the interesting characters, peppered as it is with country accents and quirky characters. The popularity of both Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot and Jackanapes were undoubtedly augmented by Ralph Caldecott’s illustrations, which are sprinkled throughout the stories.
          Jackanapes is the nickname of young Theodore, son of the “big house” in the village. While the story begins with his birth, and ends with his death, it is much more the story of the whole village, the relationships that develop over the years, and how Jackanape’s life is intermingled with all of those around him. (One commentator notes a similarity to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), which I think is not inappropriate.) The plot of his life is stereotypic: he leads his less adventurous friend Tony into all sorts of mischief as children; Tony follows him into the military but Jackanapes is by far the better soldier; Jackanapes dies saving Tony on the battlefield; the entire village honours him and Tony is a better man for the sacrifice of his friend. What is engaging about this story is that—unlike young Leonard—Jackanapes is an honourable lad who deserves the respect and love he garners. He is repentant when he is wrong, honest about his activities, and he loves his horse: a better advertisement for the cult of muscular Christianity can only be found in Tom Brown himself.  So in the end, when Jackanapes dies, we are saddened, even to tears. Ewing has excelled in this story: her characters are more well-rounded and interesting than in her other two stories included here, and the picture she paints of village life in the mid-Victorian period is rich with pastoral imagery and honest human emotion. The diction is somewhat heavy at times:  no more than many other novels of this period, but perhaps more than the average child reader—even then—would want to bear for long. But the story itself pulls the reader through, in a way that justifies Jackanapes’s position as one of the minor classics of Victorian children’s literature.