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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Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon (2018), by Karen Autio

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while now: ever since I read and loved Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter (2015). Responding to my review, the author told me of her new project, a history of the Okanagan for young readers, that she was working on with illustrator Loraine Kemp. I have to admit that my interest is not only because Kah-Lan is so marvellous, but also largely because I was born in the Okanagan and raised in the Similkameen, and was excited by the prospect of a history of my home. And now, here it is, in my hand. First, something about the illustrations: Karen Autio chooses her artist-colleagues well. Sheena Lott’s playful watercolours of sea otter pups first drew me to Kah-Lan, reminding me how much I love the ocean. Loraine Kemp’s paintings bring forth memories of dust and sage and pine in the air, and I can almost feel the blistering Okanagan sun on my skin. (Well, except for the winter scenes, which cause me to shiver in a similar but less-welcome nostalgic response.) The illustrations pair perfectly with the narrative, each painting adding subtly to the reader’s understanding of the historical moment. As for the text, the opening is auspicious: the book is “Dedicated to the syilx people, on whose lands this story unfolds.” Sqilxw (skay-lo-heh), we are told in the glossary that begins the book, means simply “the people”—the original inhabitants of the Okanagan Valley and Wild Horse Canyon—and it is with them that the story begins. The protagonist of Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon—the character who grows up—is not human, but a ponderosa pine tree, planted in 1780 by happenstance just as a young Okanagan boy paints his message on the rock wall of the canyon. As the tree grows through the decades, we watch the Okanagan people’s lives in the canyon and the valley, the coming of European fur traders along the Okanagan Brigade Trail that runs from Fort Okanagan on the Columbia River north to Kamloops, the capture and sale and culling of the wild horses that were the wealth of the Okanagan people, the settling of the valley by non-Indigenous people, two world wars, and the devastating forest fire in 2003 that kills the 223-year-old tree that has lived through so much. Despite that this is a history rather than a gripping narrative of personal endeavour, when the fire hits, we really do feel the loss, not only of our tree, but of so much else. Perhaps I feel this more personally than some: I remember watching the news in 2003, praying that my grandparents’ cabin—the old CPR bunkhouse at Chute Lake, now restored and owned by my cousins—would survive. We were fortunate: it did, while the forest and trestle and other homes were destroyed. The reprieve we felt is echoed in Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon in the description of the aftermath of the fire:
Seeds from many plants … have been waiting for decades to sprout and now begin to grow. … A seedling sheltered by the giant fallen tree in the canyon is a new ponderosa pine.
The firestorm cleared areas of the park, which then returned to rocky grassland. Bighorn sheep once lived in the park and can now live there again [and] in the Okanagan Valley south and west of Wild Horse Canyon, mostly on reserve land, several hundred wild horses survive and still roam free. (25-26)
This celebration of the cycle of life, as expressed in the slow growth and quick destruction of the ponderosa pine, and the ebb and flow of lives lived in its shade, is deeply satisfying. I hope young readers will feel at the end, as I did, that it is worth continuing, for the real history lesson lies in the pages that follow. In addition to a timeline (which is almost as satisfying to my hyper-organized mind as the map that opens the book), “More About Wild Horse Canyon and Area” includes more factual descriptions of the history and ideas touched on in the narrative. The combination of narrative and historical fact renders Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon not only fascinating for any young reader interested in our history, but even more appropriate as an addition to school and classroom libraries throughout BC and Canada.

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.