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.

White Jade Tiger (1993), by Julie Lawson

13 July 2013

Lawson-Jade TigerThis time-slip story draws issues of identity and family and heritage into the mystery of the White Jade Tiger amulet, lost and needing to be found to break a curse.  Jasmine, from 1990s Victoria, and Keung, from 1880s China and then Victoria, meet through the magical powers of the shade of Bright Jade, from the Qin dynasty, who cannot rest until her amulet is found.  Jasmine, the protagonist, learns tolerance and forgiveness on a number of levels as she works with Keung to find his father and the amulet.  The lessons the reader will glean are enhanced by the characterization of Jasmine; she is not troubled or rebellious, but rather a normal young girl who has lost her mother and whose father has gone abroad to work… She is a powerful character for young readers to identify with, as is Keung, born in the Year of the Tiger, and working hard to manifest the strength against obstacles that his birth and heritage demands.

The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), by Jane Yolen

I don’t think I have read a more powerful narrative of the Holocaust aimed at young adults.  Yolen has captured the chasm between Jewish reality today and that of Nazi Germany spectacularly.  The Devil’s Arithmetic is the tale of a Jewish girl who doesn’t understand the importance of remembrance, and resists participating in the Passover Seder, preferring to hang out with her goy friends.  During a seder celebration, she is transported back to Nazi Germany, and (unbeknownst) meets her grandmother in a concentration camp.  In the end, she must choose death to save the girl who would become her grandmother.  The historicity, the pathos, the personal experience, are marvellously balanced; while we can never truly feel what the victims did, Yolen gives us a glimpse into how someone from our time might have reacted, thrust backwards in time to a terror she understood while those around her did not.

Many Waters (1986), by Madeleine L’Engle

With Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle returns even more deeply to the Christian narrative, retelling the story of Noah and the flood through the eyes of Sandy and Dennys, who have inadvertently travelled back in time after fooling around with their father’s computer. I must admit that I had to force myself to finish Many Waters; I have been spoiled lately by the plethora of authors who are extremely careful in their research and create worlds that do not demand too great a suspension of disbelief from their readers (Kristin Cashore, K.V. Johansen, Megan Whalen Turner, Philip Pullman, and Rick Riordan all spring readily to mind).

The idea of revisiting Biblical stories in fictional form is fabulous, but the introduction of unicorns that materialize only when one believes in them, and can be called into being most readily by border-collie sized mammoths, troubles the narrative rather severely. Really? Aren’t mammoths supposed to be, well… mammoth? The griffins and manticores don’t help much, either… When one evokes mythological creatures, one has an obligation, I believe, to remain true to the accepted mythological nature of the beast. The Irish Rovers notwithstanding, no unicorns appear in Genesis 5-7; nor do unicorns have the usual characteristic of being called by believers across time and space, of flickering in and out of existence. In L’Engle’s version, this characteristic is used as a method of travel, and of escape when Sandy is kidnapped by a corrupt family of the tribe; it also enables Sandy and Dennys’s return. While their father’s experiment with the tesseract—the original Wrinkle in Time—is the cause of their initial time travel “mistake,” the return is orchestrated by the Seraphim, who travel to our century and “call” two unicorns with Sandy and Dennys on their backs. It all feels far too authorially manipulated; the Seraphim are almost-omniscient creatures, who repeatedly intervene on behalf of Sandy and Dennys and their new friends, and protecting the young girl Yalith from the lustful Nephilim. Both Sandy and Dennys fall in youthful love with Yalith, who returns their affections equally to both boys. This situation is sufficiently awkward, as Dennys comments: “If we had been older, it would have been very complicated, wouldn’t it?” (296). Another little snag lies in L’Engle’s need to adhere to the Biblical story: remember that only Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their four wives, were saved; the rest of humanity drowned.  These two problems are dealt with by having “El” (God) “take Yalith up” in the same way that Enoch was taken in the Bible: “Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him [alive to His abode]” (Gn 5:24); similarly, Yalith “was to be taken up, like her forebear Enoch” (297). Highly convenient.

Overall, while L’Engle’s story-telling abilities are sound, and her characters consistent and engaging, the incongruous combination of narrative elements in Many Waters—as in A Wind in the Door—rendered the story itself less than delightful. I have promised to read two more L’Engle novels—favourites of a friend, Dragons in the Waters (1976) and The Arm of the Starfish (1965)—but after that, I believe I will devote my time to more rewarding stories and worlds.