The Bury Road Girls is “loosely based on [the author’s] own childhood experiences growing up on the Bruce Peninsula in a family with seven girls” (back cover), which does provide a satisfying degree of verisimilitude to the story. Sadly, though, there isn’t much actual story to be had. What we have, rather, is a series of vignettes loosely held together by characters and setting (Debbie’s family and the Bury road community) that present for the reader some aspects of life in a rural Ontario community in the 1960s.
Jansen tells an Owen Sound Sun Times reporter that it was her grandchildren’s love of her stories that prompted her to write the book, and I can see how the tales of a by-gone era would be engaging both to her own family and modern urban readers, who could well be fascinated learning about girls doing boys’ farmwork, haying and threshing and driving the tractor, and a time when getting the strap was still part of school discipline. I remember those days well; rural BC communities were obviously not all that different from those in Ontario.
As a text, Bury Road Girls falls properly under the genre of the short-story cycle: neither a collection of distinct short stories nor a novel with plot or intertwined plot-lines running start to finish through the course of the single narrative. What is required of the short-story cycle, though, is some form of overarching cohesion that ties the vignettes or stories together into a whole. The Bury Road does try to present this: the concluding paragraph has Debbie revisiting the main points of each incident, searching for the Big Dipper up in the sky (another iconic rural childhood activity), because “finding it made her feel safe.” This safety, the protection and camaraderie of the family unit, is perhaps the glue that holds the narrative together, but it is sufficiently well crafted to cause the narrative to glow. The narrative voice is simple and enjoyable, and the images of rural life that we are given are true-to-life and interesting, but I can envision a more engaging way of delivering the vicarious experience.
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 19.5.
Illustrated by Manuel Monroy.
Chepito is curious about his world, but instead of the stereotypic “why?” with its a never-ending series of responses, Chepito asks “Why are you doing that?” and “What for?” This more focused question forms the basis for his journey through his rural world, from breakfast to lunch, in a cycle that brings him back to where he started: with his mother providing food and affection in their home. Chepito has eggs and beans for breakfast, then sees his the hens in the yard, the beans on the vines, all tended by people he knows. He sees corn growing, the cow being milked, tortillas grilled on the hot comal (clay griddle). When he asks his “why?” and “what for?” he is told how the food becomes his meals, how tending the crops and animals provides for his family. His final encounter is with an unnamed man resting beneath the banana trees. “Help yourself,” he is told, so he takes two: one for himself, one for Rosita, his little sister. When he gives the banana to Rosita, he shares his knowledge, just as the adults have shared their with him: “you know what? They grow on trees!”
The repetition of Chepito’s questions and of the structure of the answers, creates a lilting pattern through the story that young readers will enjoy. The gentle coloured-pencil drawings accentuate the feeling of security that the story creates. The few Spanish words sprinkled through the text can be found in the short glossary on the last page. Why Are You Doing That? has all the elements of a very successful story to be read to pre-readers or enjoyed by very early readers on their own.
M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie The Village is blatantly based on this rather interesting novel, although the screenwriter/director does not credit Haddix’s text at all. The book, not surprisingly, is better than the movie, which, again not surprisingly, introduces a number of more sensational elements and does not include the final scenes of the novel, which show the realist aftermath of the more adventurous and exciting portion of the story. The premise is that a community has been scientifically developed, peopled by individuals who no longer desire to live according to our society’s standards (ecologically, politically, etc.), who recreate and live in a society replicating nineteenth-century America. This community flourishes, and is an “experiment” like reality shows such as Frontier House (PBS, 2002, DVD); people could come and watch the community through two-way mirrors. The crisis arises when members of the community—which by now has children who do not know they are part of an experiment—begin to fall ill of diphtheria, and the promised medical supplies are not forthcoming. It is eventually determined that the providers—who set up and control the experiment—are not going to help, that the experiment is in fact less sociological and more medical (read: political and financial) than they had been told. The adults in the community devise a plan to alert the outside world to the reality of their situation, but while help arrives, the outcome of their plan is not entirely positive. The legal system as we know it exists in the outside world, and the parents in the community are ultimately charged with child abuse. We are left trusting in the reasonableness of a system that many readers will recognize as their own… a thought-provoking and real place to be left at the end of a rather dystopic novel.
This review was first published in BookBird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 51.1 (2013): 66.
That Boy Red
“Anne of Green Gables for boys” is how many people would describe Rachna Gilmore’s latest novel, and to some extent they would be right. That Boy Red is an engaging, nostalgic depiction of rural life in 1930s Prince Edward Island, with a red-headed protagonist: but there the similarities end. “Red” is not an orphan in search of a “kindred spirit” but a mischievous young boy, one of five siblings. One of the early scenes—when Red and his brother play war with—and ruin—an heirloom lock of their grandmother’s hair, reminds me far more of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy (1933). When Wilder’s Almanzo ruins his mother’s best parlor wallpaper by throwing a blacking-brush at his sister, Eliza Jane, she patches the wallpaper to prevent their parents discovering the crime. It is this solidarity between siblings—even amidst rivalries and conflict—that resonates so strongly in That Boy Red and renders it a marvelous portrayal of family dynamics at a time when families had to pull together in order to survive.
The episodic nature of That Boy Red works very well with its target audience of 8-12 year olds. After the incident with the lock of Granny’s hair, Red continues to revel in childish pranks: he tricks his younger sister, who ends up getting lost; he interferes in his older sister’s romance; and he ends up taking refuge from a storm in the local bully’s outhouse. But when his father’s hand is seriously injured, Red demonstrates a level of maturity previously unseen by taking charge and finishing a carpentry contract in order to maintain his father’s reputation for high-quality, conscientious work. In the final scene, Red helps a grounded airplane pilot repair his plane, earning himself a ride. The reader will glory in what Red realizes, flying high, as he sees how all the parts of his world connect: having strong roots gives him the freedom to grow.