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.

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The Secrets series (2015), published by Orca Books, Victoria, BC

Secrets seriesIn 2012, Orca Publishers released Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to fulfill in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. Now, in 2015, Orca has released Secrets, a parallel series with female protagonists.

The foundation of this series is the destruction of an orphanage by (we assume) accidental fire. Set in 1964, at a time when national regulations governing child welfare were in flux, the series follows the lives of the seven oldest girls in the orphanage. At eighteen, the girls would have been sent out on their own; the fire merely precipitates their setting out into the world. Each of the self-proclaimed “sisters” is given $138 by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton, along with often-vague information tenuously linking their present to their pasts, providing indeterminate paths for them to take towards their futures.

While I really enjoyed the majority of the Secrets novels, the overall premise for the series disturbs me just that little bit. Why is it that the cousins in the Sevens series are sent out into the world on challenging adventures that turn help them grow into independent adulthood, the girls’ stories follow a far more limiting path. To begin with, Sevens is contemporary, while Secrets is set in 1964, a time when—despite second-wave feminism—womanhood was still circumscribed by relatively unyielding patriarchal norms. Miss Webster, Home Economics teacher at the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls, teaches the girls that they “should be happy learning to sew for their future husbands and children … that marriage was a woman’s highest calling” (33). That readers are supposed to recognize this as a social construct to be battled does not mitigate sufficiently against the subtle yet pervasive attitudes that feminists have worked so hard to overcome between the 1964 setting and the 2015 publication of these novels. And sadly, the novels as a whole do quite a good job at recreating mid-1960s social mores. Each of the girls sets out on an adventure, granted, but not to solve a mystery surrounding their grandfather’s past (as in Sevens) but rather to resituate themselves within the safety—both personal and societal—of the family unit. Where the male protagonists’ anxieties play out in the context of a larger ideological world they will have to navigate, the female protagonists’ challenges are constrained by the social and familial.

That being said, a number of books in the series do address interesting historical events or situations. While Eric Walter’s Innocent presents little more than a glimpse into the life of a domestic servant in 1964, caught up in a murder mystery including the romancing of Betty by the local police officer, and Vicki Grant’s Small Bones does the same for life in one of the summer resort towns that dot Ontario’s lake shores, the other novels have far more historical significance. Marthe Jocelyn’s A Big Dose of Lucky presents a fictional look at the early history of artificial insemination research; Norah McClintock’s My Life Before Me looks at race relations in Indiana (one of the early free states) at the time of the murder of three civil rights’ workers in Mississippi; Kathy Kacer’s Stones on a Grave takes readers to what is left of Föhrenwald, Germany, seven years after the Allied Displaced Persons Camp there was closed in 1957; Kelley Armstrong’s An Unquiet Past (perhaps my favourite) looks at early, illicit experimentation in sleep deprivation therapy; and Teresa Toten’s Shattered Glass delves into the vibrant Toronto musical community centred on Gerrard Street in the 1940s and Yorkville in the 1960s. It is these later books, too, that present the strongest female protagonists: Tess, in An Unquiet Past ends up attending McGill university in Montreal (albeit with her Métis boyfriend in tow), and Sara, in Stones on a Grave, takes the brave step of staying in Germany (albeit partially because of young Peter, who helps her on her quest). The only protagonist who doesn’t end up in a romantic relationship at the conclusion of her novel is Cady, in My Life Before Me, who follows in the footsteps of Nellie Bly (why not Sara Jeannette Duncan, I ask myself, the Canadian Nellie Bly? but that is a different topic entirely) and researches what turns out to be her father’s 1948 murder. It is important to note, though, that Cady’s male counterpart in investigation is Daniel, the younger brother of the Black man wrongfully convicted of the murder. Within the context of 1964 Indiana, there would be no way that Cady and Daniel could establish a viable romantic relationship. The relationship between French-Canadian Tess and Métis Jackson in An Unquiet Past pushes the boundaries of believable; a fully interracial relationship in 1964 USA would unquestionably exceed them.

Despite my reservations, I am glad Orca has published this series: mostly, I think, for the valuable historical content that these last five books present. And a little bit because—the inappropriateness of perpetuating gendered narrative expectations aside—I do love a sweet romance. Mea culpa. Save yourselves and your daughters; it is too late for me…

MINRS (2016), by Kevin Sylvester

MINRS has just been short-listed for the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award, so I thought I had better finish my review and post it post-haste. I read the novel in early February, and it took me this long to review it because 1) I didn’t think I could review it without spoilers (but I think I managed), and 2) I didn’t think I could really do it justice (and I’m not sure I have managed). Regardless, here is my review…

MINRS

Sylvester - MINRS

To begin, any of you who have read my reviews about novel series in which each book does not stand alone will know how much I hate cliffhangers. And MINRS definitely has a cliffhanger. The last three words. That is all it took. Up until that point, I thought I knew where it was going. Thank you, Mr. Sylvester. No, I take that back. Or maybe not, as up until those three words, MINRS is one of the most gripping YA space novels I have read in a long, long while.

When I first read the description, I thought “ Well, that concept seems a bit derivative…” but I was very wrong. The dust-jacket flap tells us that

Earth is running out of resources, so Melming Mining looks to space and launches the Great Mission to Perses, the newest planetoid in the solar system. It’s humanity’s only hope for survival. … Christopher and a small group of young survivors are forced into the maze of mining tunnels below the surface of Perses. The kids run. They hide. But can they survive?

Space exploration and settlement as “humanity’s only hope for survival,” of course, is not a new concept, nor is having a group of teenagers separated from their adults in order to save humanity; but in MINRS, interesting scientific concepts couple with strong, consistent characters to create an unpredictable plot that holds us in thrall.

The novel opens with a tension in the small community fuelled by the upcoming Blackout, a two-month period when the sun will lie between Perses and the Earth, causing not total darkness but a full communication blackout. To assuage anxieties, the adults are convinced to throw a “Blackout party,” which goes really well… until it doesn’t. Instead of fireworks to mark the moment blackout is complete, bombs are hurled down from the sky above them, decimating the terra-formed field. Then the more accurate energy-pulse bullets rain down, killing everyone they can reach. Christopher is one of the teenagers successfully pushed towards the mines, one of only a handful of survivors hidden from the mineral-ore raiders who believe they have annihilated the population. Christopher’s father makes him promise to keep the others safe, and tells him of a beacon placed deep inside the mines by a few of the more pragmatic adults. But the beacon will not work in the blackout; the teens must find a way to survive in the shell-damaged mines for the next two months.

That is the set-up for the action that follows: the running, hiding, and eventual pillaging of the “Landers” storeroom and sabotaging of their machinery. My description makes it sound way less innovative and impressive than it is. What really moves me is Sylvester’s insightful expression of the balances of power that develop amongst the teens, and the internal and external conflicts that inform that balance. Underlying more traditional explorations of the bildungsroman development of character is a sense of noblesse oblige: Chris and his best friend, Elena, discovering that their unique strengths create an obligation to use those strengths for the good of the group, regardless of individual desires. Again, my description makes it sound far more trite than the emotional depth Sylvester shows us. In the tunnels of Perses, Chris and his rag-tag fugitives (sorry, I had to) learn more than just how to survive: they learn some of the darker secrets of the company that created Perses and of what people—even those they admire—are capable of.

Book of a Thousand Days (2007), by Shannon Hale

Hale - book“Mama used to say, you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul” (25).

Dashti is a Mucker, a peasant from the steppes who, orphaned, seeks work in the city. She pledges herself to Lady Saren, and by choice is condemned with her lady to a seven-year imprisonment, walled up in a tower stocked with food but with only a flapped opening through which to jettison their waste. Lady Saren’s crime? In traditional narrative fashion, she refuses to participate in an arranged marriage, having promised herself to a younger, kinder man. While partaking of this trope, Book of a Thousand Days nonetheless has much that is original; Shannon Hale once again shows herself more than capable of constructing a fictional world that is both unique and internally consistent.

The Muckers’ tradition involves healing through song, a talent Dashti has been taught by her mother. When her abilities are discovered, she is taught to read and write in order to be trained as the condemned Lady Saren’s handmaiden. The story unfolds through Dashti’s diary, kept as a record of “our seven years in a tower and out adventures thereafter” (epigram). Much of the narrative is initially devoted to learning how Dashti reconciles the practicalities of imprisonment with her understanding of the duties of a handmaiden; her backstory is slowly revealed through her musings about Saren and her reflections on their predicament.

Saren is weak, both physically and emotionally, and Dashti has to be strong for them both while remaining subservient, a balance which becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Saren refuses to marry Lord Kharsan not on principle, but out of fear; the young Khan Tegus, with whom she had been exchanging letters, is a safer man to tie herself to. On some level, though, she is afraid of him as well, and insists that Dashti impersonate her when Khan Tegus comes to see if he can garner their release. Lord Kharsan visits, too, and Dashti immediately understands Saren’s fear. He is more than intimidating: he is consummately evil, revelling in their fear and promising pain and even death should Saren become his. Dashti has to revisit her assessment of Saren’s choices.

Not unexpectedly, Dashti’s impersonation of Saren plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the novel, but to say more would lessen readers’ enjoyment. We know the girls escape; they then make their way to Khan Tegus’s city, and eventually (necessarily) come to his notice. How this all unfolds matters far less than how Hale presents her characters. Dashti’s voice is believable not only for its balance of intelligence with folk wisdom, but also in its consistency: rather, in its carefully calibrated development, as Dashti learns the ways of the gentry and where her meager power can best be exercised. As she learns to navigate her new world, her unshakable sense of self is strengthened; even in her fear, she knows who she is and refuses to behave elsewise. Saren, too, undergoes change; Dashti’s songs finally help her heal, giving her the strength in turn to help Dashti in her need. The hierarchy of mistress and maid blurs, and Saren admits: “Dashti is my sister. … we spent nearly three years locked in a tower and when we came out it was as if we were … being born anew” (296-7). Dashti, too, recognizes Saren’s development:

I’d seen my lady begin to change … but never until that moment had she looked like I thought gentry should. Like anyone should. More than a thousand days we’ve been together, more than a thousand songs I’ve sung for her, and only now, I think, do I see Saren truly begin to heal. (297-8)

Saren’s healing, and Dashti’s growing awareness of her own strengths, have forged a sisterhood out their at-times tenuous relationship. They have glimpsed each others’ souls, a source of solace and healing for both.