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.

The Blackthorne Key (2015), by Kevin Sands

I was discussing Kevin Sand’s The Blackthorne Key, which won the John Spray Mystery Award for 2016, with a friend, who thought that it was a little bit predictable. No (she thought a bit about it)… it was just that perhaps the protagonist, Christopher, should have figured things out more quickly, given his purported intelligence. I had to ponder why I didn’t have this same criticism, because when she pointed out some examples, her position made sense. But I didn’t have that response: I was so immersed in the novel, so convinced by the characters and intrigued by the plot, that no criticisms had the space to rear their ugly heads. In teaching rhetoric, I tell my students: “If as an author you make a mistake, and your reader notices, you will have lost them. So don’t make a mistake.” As far as I could tell as I read The Blackthorne Key, Kevin Sands makes no mistakes: I was enthralled from start to finish.

Sands really does understand his setting. Christopher, his friend Tom, even his master Benedict Blackthorne and the other apothecaries, do not sport modern sensibilities lurking beneath the narrative trappings of the seventeenth century; their characters are, rather, consistent with a world in which the boundaries between science and faith and magic are blurred. Christopher, for all his innate intelligence, is still a young boy at the same time as he approaches manhood: his youthful exuberance hatches the (illegal but oh-so-much-fun) plan to build a cannon; his intelligence gives him the means to do so; his lack of experience results in his blowing up the stuffed bear in his master’s apothecary shop. By the end of the novel, though, as he is thrust into the adult world, he has gained a maturity far beyond either his earlier self or the middle-school readers the novel is aimed at.

In the case of the bear, as throughout the novel, Sands creates a balance between authenticity and reality: Christopher is not beaten for his exploits, but we are let know in no uncertain terms that others in his position would have been. Benedict Blackthorne is presented as a reasonable, intelligent master, who values Christopher’s sharp mind, even as he strictly controls his activities. As the novel progresses, though, and Christopher and Tom are pulled into the shady dealings of the apothecaries’ guild, we—as much as they—are uncertain where Blackthorne’s loyalties really lie. The plot is sufficiently complicated, the events sufficiently believable within Sands’s carefully constructed temporal and social setting; questions the reader might have about Christopher’s world are all ultimately answered, and we are left satisfied.

What really engaged me first as a reader, though, is Sands’s sense of humour, slightly sarcastic narrative voice, and clever word play. Christopher narrates the story with language that melds a sense of the period (1665) with a typically boyish irreverence and delight in really bad ideas. When Tom comments that “people can’t just build cannons,” Christopher responds: “But that’s where cannons come from: People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven?” And he later laments, “I wished God’s warnings would be a little clearer. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for the Almighty to write STOP STEALING STICKY BUNS in the clouds or something.”

Throughout the novel, I grew more and more fond of Christopher; as he gains knowledge and maturity, he loses nothing of his boyish charm. The Blackthorne Key introduces us to Christopher; his story continues in The Blackthorne Key: The Mark of the Plague. Happily, though, The Blackthorne Key is completely self-contained; we do not need to read the second book, but I, for one, certainly will.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015), by Jordan Stratford

stratford-moonstoneIllustrated by Kelly Murphy.

Jordan Stratford begins the notes at the back of The Case of the Missing Moonstone by telling us that “the year 1826 itself is practically a character in the book,” and it seems that in fact the year 1826 might just be the most historically accurate character in the book. In his story, Stratford brings together a plethora of well-known historical personages (Ada Lovelace and her half-sister Allegra Byron, Mary Godwin and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens), adjusting their ages, rewriting their characters, and conflating their stories to construct his narrative. He provides factual accounts of each of their lives in his notes, wherein he explains his decisions, and how the real historical characters were connected (and they all are, in interesting and complicated ways).

The novel opens with the unconventional young Ada being upgraded from a governess to a tutor. Mary Godwin is introduced into the equation when she comes to learn with Ada under the tutelage of Percy Bysshe Shelley—Peebs, as Ada calls him, based on his initials. The two girls form The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate for women’s rights. As such an enterprise would be unacceptable for young ladies in their time (Mary Wollstonecraft’s advocacy notwithstanding), the young Charles Dickens is co-opted as their courier. At the end of the novel, the girls are joined by Allegra and Jane, in preparation for the sequels to follow.

The two protagonists’ reflect the complementary strengths of their namesakes: while Ada Lovelace is famous as a mathematician, Mary Shelley—as Mary Godwin eventually became—is known for her literary prowess, writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. “In real life,” Stratford tell us, “Mary was eighteen years older than Ada … But I thought it would be more fun this way—to cast these two luminaries as friends.” Despite that Stratford does tell us that Percy Bysshe Shelley “ran off with sixteen-year-old Mary to Switzerland, and they were married two years later,” the difference between his Mary Godwin and Mary Shelley the author is not only striking but problematic. It would be difficult, however, to create a novel for middle-school readers that tells the truth of the extremely unconventional lifestyles that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont (who was the real Allegra Byron’s mother) engaged in before Shelley’s early death by drowning. “While in reality Peebs had died even before our story begins, I have extended his life so that he, Ada, and Mary can be in this story together.” “As with Mary,” Stratford continues, “Jane’s timeline is moved so that she can be young alongside Mary and Ada,” and “in real life, Allegra died of fever at the age of five.”

These alterations do a great disservice to young readers; Stratford’s intent of creating an engaging story peopled with historical figures is perhaps well intentioned, but more problematic than effective. Young readers interpret story as reflecting reality in some way: the expressive-realist error, no doubt, but not surprising in the middle-school audience this mystery is intended for. While it is fascinating to read a well-written novel set in a historical period and learn from the research the author has engaged in, when it is difficult to discern where history ends and fiction begins, the novel becomes far less valuable as a vehicle of knowledge acquisition—which young readers will take it to be.

It really is a shame that Stratford plays so lose and easy with the characters, as his research is strong, and he incorporates the factual history smoothly into his story. Ada is brilliantly constructed as an excessively intelligent young girl, with strong characteristics of high-functioning Asperger’s. Anyone who lives with such a child will recognize both the frustrating and the rewarding aspects of living with someone like Stratford’s Ada. Ada’s mathematical and scientific investigations are described in just enough detail to inform the reader without boredom, and the dynamics between the socially oblivious Ada and the more psychologically astute Mary are delightful. When the characters are this engaging, and the plot interesting and well constructed, we can forgive the author some degree of liberty with historicity.

And herein lies another issue with The Case of the Missing Moonstone, at least for me: as I read through it, having suspended my disbelief regarding the characters—I quite enjoyed Ada’s youthful eccentricities and Mary’s rampant imagination—I couldn’t help but feel that I had read this plot before… The title should have been a dead giveaway, but it didn’t occur to me that an author would unabashedly copy an earlier plot.

Again in his notes, Stratford is entirely forthcoming, telling us about Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), commonly accepted as the first detective novel written in English. “Our mystery,” he admits, “is a nod to some of the elements of this classic.” More than just a nod, Mr. Stratford, when your plot can be so readily anticipated through knowledge of Wilkie Collins’s. Middle-school readers will almost certainly not have read The Moonstone, so we can see how Stratford’s idea that “it would be fun to have the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first science-fiction author solving the world’s first fictional detective mystery” could appeal. The writing is of course all Stratford’s, and he has an effective authorial voice, hints of sarcasm underlying the more straightforward narrative that young readers will really enjoy. But yet the novel bothers me. The use of an already well-known and successful premise, the drastically changed biographies of well-known historical figures: for me, these infringe upon my appreciation of the strong characterization of Ada and the interesting explorations of nineteenth-century science and literature. If it were only Ada, with a supporting cast of unknowns, in a story with an original plot… but it is not, and it is up to my readers to decide to what degree the lack of historicity and originality impacts their enjoyment. For me, it was too much.