Uncertain Solider (2015), by Karen Bass

3 April 2016

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 Journal (2015), by Lois Donovan

18 January 2015

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.

Bones (2014), by John Wilson

17 November 2014

Well, this is a rather long review for a rather short book: my apologies, but it sparked thoughts that fly off in all directions…

I looked at the number of unread novels at the side of my desk (not yet overshadowed by the number of read-but-not-yet-reviewed novels) and was struck by the number of slim volumes with small killer whales breaching on their brightly coloured spines. It made me have to look up how many stories Orca has published in their Currents (82), Soundings (104), Limelight (10), and Sports (42) series, titles from all of which I have reviewed. The literary quality might be a bit uneven overall, but it is gratifying to see how many of my favourite Canadian authors for children and teens take the time and energy away from their longer works to fill the shelves of libraries and classrooms where disadvantaged students struggle to engage with reading. This is not to say that these books are only found in inner-city schools and the like, but I know for a fact how welcome they are in these spaces: I have been told so often when I take my review copies (never “advanced reading copies”!) for donation. Any of you who do have books in good condition to get rid of, please consider donating them to local libraries. School libraries in the Vancouver area, especially, can always use free books, given budgetary cut-backs, and even the Vancouver Public Library accepts donations of books for distribution as prizes in their reading camps.

The book that was on the top of my pile was John Wilson’s recent Orca Currents contribution, Bones. I expected good things, having greatly enjoyed Wilson’s The Heretic’s Secret novels, and having recently reviewed Wings of War for Resource Links magazine. I really look forward to his upcoming novel about John Franklin, especially given the recent discovery of one of Franklin’s boats—is it the Erebus? or the Terror?—off King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. But I digress.

Wilson - BonesBones (2014)

Bones lives up to my expectations, being another excellent example of Wilson’s care in research and presentation of data. In this novel, his topic is palæontology; the setting, the badlands and coulees surrounding Drumheller, Alberta, location of the world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum. Wilson conveys to his readers the depth of his own understanding of his topic, yet avoids any patronizing or erudite tone in his narration: exactly what struggling readers need in order to engage with the story. Wilson has chosen this topic well for another reason, too: it seems to be true still today, that children all go through a “dinosaur” phase. I remember having memorized the names of dozens of prehistoric creatures; the rivalry between my brother and me was replicated 30 years later in my own children’s lives. [As an aside, the dedication of Bones thrilled me: “For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Lost Worlds first sparked my interest in dinosaurs.” I read Lost Worlds in my youth as a result of my obsession with dinosaurs. The more I know of John Wilson, the more I like this author… But I digress: again.]

To return to Bones: Sam and his girlfriend Annabel have come from Australia to visit Sam’s mother, who lives in a commune near Drumheller. The highly intelligent Annabel is already fascinated by palæontology, and Sam feels somewhat excluded from her conversations with Dr. Bob Owen, his mother’s friend and a researcher at the museum. Sam’s annoyance turns to jealousy when they meet Glen, a research student working with Dr. Bob. This social aspect to the story underlies a mystery that the two teens become involved in: indeed, discover. They had previously run across Humphrey Battleford, a private art “collector” (read, in this instance: thief). Wilson’s allusions to his previous story, Stolen (2013), are suggestive but not intrusive, as is his hook at the end of the story, when Annabel ponders, “I wonder if we’ve seen the last of him?” (117). If you do follow my blog, you will know my opinion of series fiction that requires readers to continue. Bones is a fine example of how to do it right. We know there is a history with the dishonest Battleford, but the exact details are not given nor do they matter. What we do know is that his presence sets the teens on alert, and that their concerns are justified. When Sam, Annabel, and Dr. Bob discover that their fossils have been stolen, they recognize the futility of going to the police, a degree of realism often overlooked in teen fiction. The wheels of legal bureaucracy move very slowly indeed; in order to ensure his continued research, Dr. Bob understands that it is more important to get his fossils back than it is to have Battleford brought to justice. And thus the story ends. Annabel’s final comment to Sam leaves open the possibility—but not the requirement—of future instalments of their story.

Outcasts of River Falls (2012), by Jacqueline Guest

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 18.1.

Outcasts of River Falls

The Red River Resistance (or Rebellion) of 1869, the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion) of 1885; these are pivotal moments in Canada’s history. In the first act of resistance, Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabrielle Dumont succeeded in establishing a provisional government and treating with the Canadian Government (although it ultimately did not go so very well); in the second, the Métis were completely defeated, and Louis Riel was hanged for high treason. So much is well known, but after the North-West Resistance the fate of the Métis people slips into the fog of history, silenced by a loud English-speaking voice from the politically powerful East. In Outcasts of River Falls, Jacqueline Guest creates a strong voice for the Métis people, telling a small part of their history in a way that young readers will not only learn from, but enjoy.
In Belle of Batoche (2004), Guest introduces us to Belle Tourond, who during the North-West Resistance comes to recognize her own fortitude and abilities. In Outcast of River Falls, Belle helps her young niece Katy discover her own strength and establish a pride in being Métis. Raised in Toronto without any knowledge of her Métis heritage, the orphaned Kathryn is sent to Alberta to join her Aunt Belle. Landed in a strange and hostile environment, Katy must not only learn a new culture, but adjust her sense-of-self to incorporate her new social position as one of the Road Allowance People: the Métis, who were not permitted to own land and so lived on the government-owned road allowances (that is, until someone White or otherwise privileged wanted the land). Katy’s confusion, the mistakes she makes, the questions she has but is afraid to ask: all ring true. Her position as not-visibly Métis complicates her experiences, and helps her—and the reader—truly understand the evils of prejudice and bigotry. The plot involves a mysterious Robin Hood figure who has been righting some of the smaller injustices perpetrated against the Métis people. Add in a crooked, offensive police officer, and a murdered bank guard, and you have the recipe for a culturally sensitive situation to which, ultimately, Katy must actively contribute. In acting to save her Aunt Belle, Katy finally accepts her true heritage: she ends with her Toronto dreams of being a lawyer firmly reestablished, but now altered: she will not only be a female lawyer on the vanguard of Canadian social progress, but a female Métis lawyer, bound by conscience to fight for the rights of her people.
Outcasts of River Falls comes with an effective Novel Study Guide, which includes synopses of the chapters as well as activities (for example, a 1900 Eaton catalogue to price purchases Katy might have made) and thoughtful study questions. This very engaging novel combined with the study guide will help elementary school teachers of early Canadian history immensely.