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.

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When Santa Was a Baby (2015), by Linda Bailey

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 21.1.

Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout.

When Santa Was A Baby

Bailey - Santa BabyThis 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 xxx

The first thing that strikes one about When Satan Was a Baby is Geneviève Goudbout’s clever artistic style, which replicates the wrapping paper and illustration of Christmases in the 1960s and 1970s. The muted autumnal pastel drawings, the pencil-crayon poinsettias against the moss-green background, the red button noses and shiny apple cheeks of the characters: all these speak of a heartwarming nostalgia that is reinforced by the story.

Linda Bailey’s Santa is a normal little boy… except for his booking baby voice, and maybe his love of red over every other colour, and perhaps his propensity for re-wrapping his birthday presents… Things begin to become clearer to the reader when he harnesses his hamsters to a matchbox to pull around the house. Part of the joy for the young reader will be that Santa’s parents still haven’t figured it out. “Extraordinary!” his father proclaims; “He’s so creative!” coos his mother. “Don’t they get it?!” the young reader will ask in an exasperated, or perhaps superior, voice.

Bailey’s humour is giggle-inducing and sustained throughout the story; allusions to perhaps the most famous Santa poem—“A Visit from St. Nicholas”—are subtle and effective. The story is all wrapped up neatly in the end, when Santa’s parents comment, with a revisionist view of his youth, “That’s what we always thought he’d do … We knew it all the time.” And Santa replies “HO HO HO!”

Uncertain Solider (2015), by Karen Bass

Bass - SoldierWhen I was young, I saw the 1978 movie version of Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973). Until then, I hadn’t thought about what “our side” did with prisoners of war. It was more obvious with Allied prisoners in the European or Asian theatre: the prisoners were held there, where the battles were being waged. (Hogan’s Heroes, the comic TV series that ran from 1965 to 1971, was also a popular entertainment of my youth.) Less traumatic than the American Summer of My German Soldier, Uncertain Soldier tells the story of Erich Hofmeyer, a German prisoner of war held in Alberta in the winter of 1943-44.

The story begins, though, in the voice of young Max Schmidt, a Canadian lad born of German parents, who is persecuted for his heritage and understandably struggles with his identity as a result. His father is almost violently insistent that Max remain proud of and stand up for himself and his German heritage. What Max is subjected to is impossible to stand against, though: a systematic, targetted bullying that readers will recognize as being a pervasive response to otherness, not just the product of war-time Canadian prejudice. When the bullying becomes life threatening, Max runs away. Max’s flight is the impetus for an act of bravery by Erich on both a physical and an emotional level, a distillation of the uncertainty that has been tearing at Erich throughout the novel.

Erich’s uncertainty regarding his conflicted national and cultural identities gives rise to the novel’s title. While Max’s struggle is the weft of the fabric of Bass’s narrative, Erich’s is the warp. Max is persecuted by his classmates; Erich’s very life is threatened by his complex position as a German national with British relatives, who speaks English perfectly and who silently rejects Hitler’s insistence on the superiority of the Aryan “race.” In the prison camp outside of Lethbridge where Erich is initially held, the Nazi party members rule as strongly as within the German army. Beaten close to death by those in power, Erich is granted a transfer to a work camp for prisoners deemed to be less of an ideological threat. Here, too, though, the dynamics among the prisoners is infused with mistrust of each other and of the Canadians the men work with. Some of the Canadians are generous and kind; others are resentful; and at least one person is filled with a hatred that leads to murderous intent. As both linguistic and cultural interpreter between the German prisoners and their English-speaking boss and fellow lumberjacks, Erich sees both honour and mistrust on both sides, and his honest, empathetic perspective makes him an ideal negotiator but also puts him in an almost untenable situation.

Uncertain Soldier is a solid, intelligent interpretation of the politics of the time and the effect of opinion on morale. Through the richness of its characters, the novel gives voice to a gamut of attitudes, revealing the complexity of life during the 1940s far more thoroughly and effectively than what is taught in history classes. In contrast to the Canadian Sam’s violent insistence that “a few firing squads last war would’ve fixed it,” Erich’s British grandfather astutely notes that “more mercy by the Great War’s victors might have prevented the fight that loomed” (103). The parallel with history is made more powerful by its subtlety; most readers will not hear Sam’s vehemence as an echo of French military politician Ferdinand Foch, who noted at the time that the Treaty of Versailles was “not peace [but] an Armistice for twenty years,” asking for harsher restrictions to be place on the defeated Germany. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Erich’s grandfather’s position is reminiscent of John Maynard Keynes’s insistence that the conditions were too harsh, that the Treaty was a “Carthaginian peace,” a peace ensured by the complete annihilation of the vanquished, such as Rome’s conquering of Carthage. Historians still debate the political “what ifs” of the first half of the twentieth century, and this uncertainty, manifested at all levels of society, is brilliantly woven into the fabric of Bass’s text.

The White Oneida (2014), by Jean Rae Baxter

Baxter - White O In her earlier young adult historical novels—The Way Lies North (2007), Broken Trail (2011), and Freedom Bound (2012), Jean Baxter explores the lives of the United Empire Loyalists, Native Americans, and African-American slaves during and shortly after the American Revolution. We follow the history of the Cobham family—among others—as they flee persecution in the United States, separated by the turmoil of the conflict. John Cobham and the eldest son, Elijah, left to fight for the British; the second son, Silas, later followed them; the youngest son, Moses, ran away and was found and adopted by an Oneida community; the only girl, Hope was a babe in arms as the family fell apart.

The White Oneida follows this exploration into the aftermath of political decisions made at the time, specifically those regarding the First Nations and land rights. The White Oneida is Moses Cobham, raised from the age of ten as Broken Trail. As the story opens, Broken Trail has been sent by Thayendanegea—known in history books as Joseph Brant—to Sedgewick School in Vermont, where promising young Native youths were being taught the White Man’s ways ostensibly to prepare them to “go forth to preach the Gospel in many tongues” (13). This, however, is neither Thayendanegea’s nor Broken Trail’s intent. Broken Trail is being educated explicitly to help forge alliances between the various First Nations, to gain a “gentleman’s education that will help prepare [him] to assist [Thayendanegea] in negotiations with white diplomats as well as with his plans to make a better future for native people” (5), and Broken Trail approaches his commission very earnestly.

In a twist on the Muscular Christianity “school novel” tradition, lacrosse plays a role in honing Broken Trail’s leadership abilities, but in the interest of promoting unity amongst the native peoples, not in the promulgation of Christian doctrine. This plot element draws also on historical allusion. The story, roughly told, is that at the outset of the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763, lacrosse functioned as a Trojan Horse: the First Nation warriors played lacrosse in the fields outside Fort Michilimackinac so often that the activity was considered harmless. When a ball was sent over the fort walls in a particular match between the Ojibwas and the Sauks, the British opened the door to return it; the natives surged through, decimating the fort. In The White Oneida, the metaphor of lacrosse as “the little brother of war” (49) functions on a deeper level. At Sedgewick School, the game, in traditional fashion, pits the Algonkian Shooting Stars (populated by students from the Mississaugas, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Shawnee, and Mohican nations) against the Six Nations Eagles (with students from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations: the the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayugas, Onondaga, and Tuscarora). Recognizing the politically divisive nature of this recreational rivalry, Broken Trail asserts that he will only play if he plays for the Shooting Stars; he is supported by Lean Horse–Abraham, a Mohican who crosses the floor to the Eagles’ team (109). This is Broken Trail’s first success as a leader: despite initial opposition, not only the students but two of the teachers are converted to his position that “with mixed teams we’ll feel more like brothers than rivals … that’s what we need if we’re ever going to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend our lands” (111).

Broken Trail comes to Sedgewick School as a firm acolyte of Thayendanegea, but his hero-worship is disturbed by his teacher, half-Mohawk Mr. Johnson, whose opinion of Brant is less idealized. Thayendanegea, Mr. Johnson tells Broken Trail, means “places-two-bets”: a fitting name for Captain Joseph Brant, who “gambled to become a fine gentleman in the white man’s world and a war chief in ours. He won both bets” (67). Baxter - Haldimand TractIn 1784, Brant “won” for the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract: a grant of land stretching 6 miles either side of the Grand River for its entire length, 950 000 acres, give or take, in total. When Broken Trail comments that “the Haldimand Tract doesn’t belong to Captain Brant. It belongs to the people of the Six Nations,” Mr. Johnson derisively asks “Does Brant know that?” (67). Mr. Johnson further tells Broken Trail that Brant has been “selling off Six Nations land as if it were his own property” (139); it is historical fact that Brant did sell parts of the Haldimand Tract to white settlers. Later in the novel, Brant is given his own voice to respond to such accusations. Brant disillusions Broken Trail of his belief that the Haldimand Tract was granted to the Iroquois in recognition of their loyalty, explaining the military rationale behind the grant (220). He goes on to explain that the grant was “both too small and too large”: “too small for the Six Nations to live in the old way [but] more than what we require for farms. So why not sell land we don’t need in order to raise money for the things we do?” (221). By this point, we are willing to believe that Brant’s rationale is what he believes to be true, but it is to Baxter’s great credit that—like Broken Trail—we are not really sure that any of the versions we are given are actually truth.

In the context of the novel, the cynical Mr. Johnson has a valid perspective. This is another of the strengths of Baxter’s historicity: her fictional characters are constructed such that their knowledge and opinions are justified and believable. Brant, as a historical figure carries his own credibility, but the fictional characters seem equally “real.” Mr. Johnson, for example, is presented as “one of Sir William Johnson’s sons” (27) from his union with Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister. The Dictionary of National Biography verifies Baxter’s information about the Johnson family, should a reader choose to check. They likely wouldn’t: so much of Baxter’s information reads as historical truth.

(An interesting tangential note is that Canadian poet-performer, E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who adopted her great-grandfather’s native name of “Tekahionwake,” or “Double-Wampum,” was descended from Sir William. Twice widowed, in 1759 Sir William “married” Molly Brant, who bored him eight children. Johnson had 3 children by his first wife, Mary Wisenburgh, and an unspecified number by his second long-term liaison with a Dutch woman whom he married on her death-bed—hence Broken Trail’s classmate’s comment about Johnson making “good provision for all his children, whether their mothers were native or white” (27). In his will, Johnson calls Molly’s children his “natural children” (see Dictionary of National Biography entry, below). Broken Trail’s fictional teacher, Mr. Johnson, was one of these children, as was E. Pauline Johnson’s entirely non-fictional great-grandfather, Jacob George “Tekahionwake” Johnson.)

It is not the well-constructed plot of The White Oneida that renders it such a successful historical novel so much as the weaving together of the threads of political machinations surrounding the history of the Iroquois nations in Canada and the creation of the Six Nations Reserve in what is now Brant County. The objective history of negotiations and decisions is complex; through Broken Trail’s growing insight and ethical interpretations of what he learns, readers can begin to understand the motivations driving those decisions. More politically aware than Broken Trail, Margaret–Yellowbird tells him that she “doesn’t trust” the American tolerance of the Oneida rebuilding the villages destroyed in the Revolution: “Whenever they seem to be treating us better, they’re just softening us up so they can take more of our land. I think their plan is to push us into little reservations surrounded by white settlements, so each band will be cut off from the rest. That way, we’ll lose our power to act as a single nation” (43). This concern underlies Brant’s intent in sending Broken Trail to Sedgewick School. Broken Trail begins his educational journey believing that Brant’s vision is right, his motivations pure and just. As we leave him, we see that Broken Trail’s belief in the vision is just as strong, but he has a far more balanced and realistic view of the complexities of and contradictions in Brant’s—and others’—attitudes and actions. He has seen that too often “the bannock was buttered and spread with strawberry jam” (223), and he moves ever forward in his desire to negotiate the disparate yet entangled worlds he inhabits.

 

Sir Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, 1921–1922. Volumes 1–20, 22 (London, England: Oxford UP, 1921-1922) p. 939:

Baxter - William Johnson DNB