Wings of War (2014), by John Wilson

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 20.1.

Wilson - Wings of WarJohn Wilson is not only a careful historian, but a powerful weaver of tales. Wings of War joins And in the Morning (2003), Red Goodwin (2006), and Shot at Dawn (2011) to tell the story of World War One through the eyes of those the war touches, both in the trenches and on the home front. Wings of War, though, takes to the skies, exploring the life of young Edward Simpson, who learns to fly in his uncle’s wheat fields and ends up flying over Beaumont-Hamel during the most devastating battle in the war.

World War One saw a new form of warfare: no longer did men face one another only on the battlefield with guns and bayonets, but with tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas—and above, with airplanes. Eddie Simpson is already infected with the flying bug before the war begins; he knows that from the relative safety of his airplane cockpit, high above the barrage, he can contribute to the war effort. Like so many young men, he goes to war inspired by idealism, a sense of the rightness of his involvement. He recognizes early his advantages over the soldiers caught in the trenches, suffering in ways that have little to do with the enemy bullets that bombard them. It isn’t long, though, before Eddie is faced with death—both of his friends and of German soldiers shot down by his squadron. Learning the ways men handle the killing and the fear of being killed, he grows up quickly; the new recruits, older than he, seem young, innocent. At the age of seventeen, Eddie is a seasoned veteran of the air; as he says, he has already “acquired the tired look around the eyes that marks those of us who have been here longest” (146).

Eddie’s emotional and psychological development moves us; we watch as his idealism slips away and a hardened maturity grows in its place. What makes Wings of War especially engaging, though, is Wilson’s artful weaving of Eddie’s story with the technical details of early flight: airplane construction and handling, and the specialized techniques required for successful aeronautic battle. Airplanes and flying are Eddie’s life, but he struggles to reconcile the sense of freedom flying gives him with the destruction it enables. It is only fitting that his story centres around that which moves him most deeply: flying, planes, and his role as a pilot and a soldier.

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The Journal (2015), by Lois Donovan

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.