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.

This Canada of Ours (1929), by Maud Morrison Stone

Stone, Maud Morrison, and J.S. Morrison. This Canada of Ours: A Pictorial History (Toronto Musson, 1929).

This post is a bit academic, as I have copied it over from our Canada’s Early Women Writers project blog. Sometimes the cross over is really interesting: Maud Morrison Stone, for example, was co-author of one of the first forays into the graphic narrative format…

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Maud Morrison Stone’s great-niece, Christine Owen, a recently retired lawyer who had been sorting through her parents’ papers. She kept running across papers referring to and written by this author relative, and so began to search the internet for more information. And found us. All we had about Maud Morrison Stone at the time was a reference to one book: This Canada of Ours (1937). Now we know so much more.

About the text

The publication of This Canada of Ours has some interesting aspects to it. The first edition was actually 1929, and came in a paper slipcover with a drawing of a young boy reading on it (or some such design; Christine was not entirely sure). Christine also has another 1929 edition, from which I have scanned a few pages, which is likely a second printing, as it includes no slipcover. You can note on the cover, though, that the book is credited first to J.S. Morrison, Maud’s brother John Stuart, who illustrated the book. While this might seem odd, or even male chauvinist, it is in fact the remnant of the book’s first life as a graphic narrative, serialized from 2 May 1925 through 23 May 1929 in a number of Canadian periodicals (Border Cities Star (Windsor, ON), Brantford Expositor, Calgary Herald, Cowichan Leader (Duncan, BC), Edmonton Journal, Lethbridge Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Canadian Observer (Sarnia, ON), Saskatoon Star, St. Catharines Standard, The Times Journal (St. Thomas, ON), Sydney Post, Vancouver Province, Victoria Colonist, Winnipeg Tribune). So in the first iteration, J.S. Morrison was far more than just the illustrator. (For a better discussion of early North American educational comics as a genre, see John Adcock’s post of 22 October 2012 on Yesterday’s Papers.)

While the serialized graphic narrative and the 1929 edition were intended as an educational tool for school children, in 1937 a revised and expanded edition was published, intended for a more adult audience. This edition included 63 chapters, and covered much more of Canadian history than the earlier edition’s 29 chapters, which ended with Count Frontenac. It is interesting to note, though, that the final page of the 1929 edition reads “The End of Volume One,” more than suggesting that the remainder of the story, included in the 1937 edition, was originally intended as a second volume in the more juvenile format. Reviews of the 1929 edition are almost exclusively positive, heralding it as a fine example of this innovative narrative form for educating young readers; it would be interesting to know why the second volume was never produced. (I see an academic paper topic in the comparison of the serialized version with the two published editions, for any graduate students out there looking for something to focus on…)

About the story

It was interesting how strongly the content of This Canada of Ours corresponds to what I was taught in the early 1970s about our country, in contrast to the far more culturally balanced history taught today. The story of the naming of Canada, for example, is exactly as I remember it; I have included it here because it brings back to me another story from my youth.

In 1982, I was in Jyväskylä, Finland, as a Rotary Exchange student. The instructor of the Grade 11 English class I attended told a version of the story popular in Europe at the time. When the Spanish came up the west coast of Canada (he told the class), they saw the vast stretches of forest and mountain and pronounced: “aquí nada,” which became Ca-nada. And hence the country was defined in its vast nothingness (yes, he did add that last part). He was some not impressed when I, in my youthful egoism, pointed out the error of his position. After all, Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) founded the city of Quebec in 1608, while Captain James Cook (1728-1779) reached the west coast of Canada in 1778; both were much later than the name of Canada was in use. Wikipedia will tell you that in fact Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) was the first to use the name, which (as This is Our Canada also tells us) almost certainly comes from “kanata,” the Iroquois word for “village.” The Spanish-language story (which is a not-unknown alternate etymological explanation, Wikipedia again tells us) refers to Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue (1492) and discovering the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. But the Portuguese and Spanish stuck to depleting the cod population and didn’t go up the St. Lawrence at all, so I stand with Maud Morrison Stone on this one.

The rest of the story

The book is dedicated “To the memory of Adam Morrison and Mary McLeod Morrison, U.E.L., our father and mother, who taught us to love Canada.” A more patriotic beginning would be hard to find. The authors are obviously sincere in their appreciation of Canada and Canadian history: they begin with “The story of Canada is one of absorbing interest,” and we grow to believe them. The writing is far more engaging than the history books I read, certainly, but the sheer level of detail must have been daunting to any school-aged reader. The historical information is about 60% running text, scattered through with illustrations separate from the graphic narrative panels. Interspersed as well are snippets of poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even our own Jean Blewett. More than just J.S. Morrison’s illustrations as a method of engaging readers’ interest, Maud Morrison Stone tells stories of the men (and a very few women) who helped settle North America. The authors are thorough in their understanding of the politics of settlement, including the histories of all the regions of the eastern seaboard as integral to the development of the Canadian nation.

The selection of stories seems inclusive to me, but then I was raised with this as the fundamental narrative of our nation. No matter what content was taught 40 years ago, though, it is impossible now to avoid a colonial blindness to or elision of the First Nations’ perspective. This is not the forum for intense consideration of this topic, but even more than an investigation of the textual production of This Canada of Ours, I would love to see an analysis of the colonial discourse included herein. The First Nations are included in seemingly positive or at worst neutral ways—better by far than the blatant racism of some early versions of Canadian exploration and settling—but there is an underlying feeling of important issues being mentioned then glossed over. I might not give this text to my children as a resource, but then again, I might: with the right guiding hand, the stories Maud Morrison Stone tells, however strongly embedded in the Eurocentric discourse of its time, could still today give rise to productive discussion of the real history of our nation.

(I leave you with the harrowing tale of Henry Hudson, set adrift with his young son to die on the icy Bay that afterward bore his name, Betrayed by a mutinous crew led by his first-mate, Joel, “a gutter-snipe ‘pressed’ from the streets of Bristol.” What can one expect from a starving, disheartened crew and a first-mate kidnapped and pressed into service against his will, one might ask, but the author’s sympathies are unquestionably with Hudson here.)

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

wyss-map

Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

wyss-cover