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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Deliver Us From Evie (1994), by M.E. Kerr

Many years ago, I supervised Dr. Rob Bittner as an undergraduate in his exploration of the intersection of Christianity with homosexuality in young adult novels. Back then, there were so few such novels published that it has been fascinating to watch Rob’s career develop along side a growing corpus of LGBTQ fiction for young readers. The following is his simple description of M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us From Evie.

“This novel follows a short time in the life of Parr, whose sister, Evie, is a lesbian. At first, Parr [wants to support Evie], because he wants Evie to stay and take care of the farm so he won’t have to. As soon he finds out she has no plans to stay on the farm, in a situation complicated by other issues, he and another young man hang up a derogatory sign in the town square. These events lead to the escape of Evie from the town with Patsy Duff, her lover. This story is not ultimately about explorations of sexuality and literature so much as it is about the suffering caused by being different. There are some tender moments to keep the plot from becoming melodramatic, however, and so, in the end, there is some reconciliation within the family. … The treatment of sexuality as something negative that leads to the need for escape is [a strong] example of how homosexuality is treated for the most part prior to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

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.