Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016), by Rona Arato

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.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016)

arato-headless-horseman“Jinkies, it’s Cousin Wilber!” or rather, “Oy vey, it’s Mr. Katzenblum!” Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a fun version of the standard Scooby Doo-like plot, wherein a disgruntled relative re-enacts the legend of the Headless Horseman in order to frighten the owners of a family inn into selling. Set in a Jewish immigrant community in the Catskill Mountains, the novel is more complex than the children’s cartoon, in that it touches on how prejudice exists on a number of levels: racial, cultural, financial. The strength of the story lies in the author’s exploration of the Jewish culture, which is presented in a way that non-Jewish readers can fully engage with.

Sammy, a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant, accompanies his Aunt Pearl and annoying cousin Joshua, and his cousin Leah (who plays little role in the novel) for their summer vacation at the Pine Grove Hotel. Aunt Pearl and Joshua condescendingly treat Sammy as little more than a servant; in fact, Aunt Pearl functionally offers Sammy as free labour at the inn. While his relatives have a “large, airy room” (10), Sammy is left to bunk with Adam, a summer employee. Sammy is actually pleased with this arrangement, as it permits him to mostly avoid Joshua, and to conspire with Adam and Shayna, daughter of the inn owners, in their “ghost hunting” (17).

A sense of the supernatural is established by Mrs. Leibman, inn-keeper, who believes her grandmother is haunting her. Her grandmother, Mrs. Leibman tells the children, always liked her brother best, and her ghost wants him to have the hotel. When things break and lights go out, Mrs. Leibman’s superstitions seem supported. Combined with the mysterious Headless Horseman’s harassment of The Hermit, a reclusive ex-slave who suffers discrimination at the hands of the less-educated of the community, the “hauntings” provide ample scope for a ghost-hunting adventure.

For the younger readers, the simple plot will still entertain, and the end may be satisfying: Sammy’s father comes and stands up for him against Aunt Pearl; the Headless Horseman is unmasked; and the Hermit returns to his reclusive existence. For those who have read more broadly, the plot will seem derivative and the end far too predictable.

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.

The Hemingway Tradition (2002), by Kristin Butcher

24 September 2014

Burtcher-HemingwayI had the honour of spending the day with Kristin Butcher this past weekend (we’ve been Facebook “friends” but never met). She kindly gave me a copy of her first novel (The Runaways, 1997) and her first book for the Orca Soundings series, The Hemingway Tradition. I immediately began reading…

The Hemingway Tradition, like all Orca Soundings novels, is short, yet Butcher manages to pack a number of interwoven issues into it. We meet Shaw as he and his mother are driving from Vancouver to their new life in Winnipeg; Shaw’s mind is filled with the contemplation of various methods of suicide. “Well, that’s a bit of a downer,” a reader might think, “starting in medias res of a story of a suicidal teenager.” It doesn’t take long, though, for us to begin to feel for Shaw in his pain: his thoughts stem from his memory of finding his father, who had shot himself through the head. The rest of the story—not surprisingly—revolves around Shaw coming to terms with his father’s suicide, his apparent desertion of his family, but more importantly his betrayal of the image Shaw had of their relationship as father and son. For Shaw, that relationship had been ideal, almost idyllic. (This is, in fact, the only obvious flaw in the text: Shaw’s parents are too ideal, his mother too understanding and aware of his needs. It would be asking too much, though, to have all of the characters as fully developed as Shaw himself: he is, after all, the focal point.) The idealized Dylan Sebring, a well-respected Canadian mystery author, had supported and taken pride in Shaw’s a love of and ability in writing. They had shared moments of beauty and joy, shared with readers through Butcher’s powerful, poetic prose. A particularly poignant example is when the image of his dead father batters against Shaw’s mind…

the blood-soaked bedroom began to dissolve. It slid like down the walls of my mind as if it were being hosed into the storm sewer I watched with fascination. I felt the tension in my body drain away with the dirty water.

Gradually I became aware of a gentle rocking. And then the lapping of water on the hull of a small boat. My body melted deeper into the molded seat of the runabout and I squinted at the sunlight winking on the water. Dad … was stretched out on the seat across from me with his feet propped on the gunwale. His eyes were closed, and his long, lean body was swaying with the rhythm of the boat. (32-33)

Shaw’s confusion about the degree of honesty in his father’s—their—life is complicated by racial and homophobic slurs students at his new school hurl at his new locker-mate and friend, Jai Dhillon. Finally, Shaw can take no more: after a physical altercation with a group of racist bullies, he realizes that his power against such bigotry lies in his ability to communicate both the ills of prejudice and ways to overcome the ignorance that gives rise to it.

The parallel Shaw draws between the overt bigotry he battles against, and the inner complications of his own emotional situation, is carefully balanced. For Butcher to have successfully woven three important themes together in such a short novel is impressive; in only 107 pages, she gives us a meaningful explication of the anguish Shaw feels, and how exorcising his inner demons not only frees him but makes him powerful on behalf of others.

Hunted (2012), by Cheryl Rainfield

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 17.5.


While I was reading Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted, I attended a lecture by Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion.  Listening to Armstrong, lines and scenes from Hunted repeatedly rose up in my mind, and I thought: this is more than a dystopic novel about oppression and intolerance (which it is); it is a powerful narrative example of the strength it takes, within an oppressive culture, to maintain one’s sense of humanity.

In Hunted, Caitlyn and her mother are continually running, changing names, schools, lives… because Caitlyn is a “Paranormal,” a telepathic who can read others’ thoughts and emotions: a power that frightens those without it. In Caitlyn’s world, Paranormals of all kinds must be registered, and once registered, are removed from society and tortured, sometimes forced to hunt other “Paras.” During the uprising that led to this abusive system, Caitlyn’s father was murdered and her brother Daniel taken away; she and her mother fled. After years of running, Caitlyn finally needs to stop, to rest, to blend in. Rejoining society—as much as she is able—is difficult, dangerous, and yet rewarding. Her two new “Normal” friends are similarly, if not equally outcast: Rachel is lesbian and Alex is black. While Rachel’s lesbianism is highlighted as a consideration in her relationship with Caitlyn, Alex’s race is not sufficiently apparent to the reader. When we meet him, we are told that “his skin contrasts with his crisp white shirt” (30), but that could make him Mediterranean, or even just well-tanned. Once, later, Caitlyn mentions his “springy black curls” (148), but no other mention is made until almost he end of the book, when the term “black” is finally used. In our white-washed world, a few more hints would be welcome.

The political aspects of the plot—too complicated to delineate but solidly structured and effective—lead to a crisis for which Caitlyn’s online avatar, Teen-Para, has been made the scapegoat. In the end, sacrifices are made by individuals on both sides, and readers are left with a strong message regarding blanket assumptions about good and evil. Caitlyn’s faith in the goodness, the inherent humanity, of “Normals” is justified, as is her wariness of belief in anyone merely because they are paranormal. There are hints here of Katniss’s response to the politics of Panem in the end of the Hunger Games trilogy: a group being oppressed and thus rebellious does not necessarily equate with that group being right or justified.  What Caitlyn and the reader have reinforced is a message of tolerance of difference, and a wariness of all individuals who seek power at the expense of others.

The Charter for Compassion expounds that “compassion is not an option; it is the key to our survival” (Alastair Smith, Greater Vancouver Compassion Network); faithful to this humanist tenet, Caitlyn strives to create the compassionate world her father envisioned: “Dad dreamed of a world where we could live freely—but he also taught me that all life is precious, Normal or Paranormal, and that we’re all in this together” (294). The power of Hunted is that by the end of the novel, the reader is sure that she is right.